It’s about us

TV Nova case a barometer for status of Czech democracy

A recent international arbitration ruling concluded that the country, via dealings involving TV Nova, had cheated its American investors. The fine was $353 million (10.7 billion Kc) – more than 1,000 Kc for every citizen. This case is not about a single TV station. In size and substance, it represents the true state of affairs in the Czech Republic today. At the same time, if the case can be successfully investigated and the culprits brought to light, it will represent a huge positive milestone. Czechoslovakia’s first president, T.G. Masaryk, said it takes 50 years for democracy to take root. For that to happen, old totalitarian habits, such as political control of the media, must disappear. But can this completely happen after a mere 13 years? Our politicians still form a relatively homogenous group, with media control as a top priority. Our citizenry remains fragmented organizationally and morally. And our media often ensures survival through cooperation with dominant political structures. Full democracy has taken time in other countries as well. Early 20th century America was tainted by severe corruption, with families such as the Rockefellers and the Kennedys making their first respective million through illegal activities. We also have our equivalents: Viktor Kozeny and Vladimir Zelezny. Though fired as TV Nova’s director in May, Zelezny masterminded the departure” of his American investors. As a result of his involvement, Zelezny now faces multiple indictments ranging from tax evasion to fraud. Along with claiming complete innocence, Zelezny sought immunity by successfully running for the Senate.

That immunity was later rescinded. If Zelezny really is innocent, a legal process in which he could clear his name would provide him with that status. Instead, he stated that the international court’s ruling represents the true price for our sovereignty,” a representation of the pinnacle of aloofness and arrogance. In democratic countries, television licenses are sold, and not leased, as they are here. The situation here gives our politicians a serious weapon. If one doesn’t broadcast what they like, the license is not extended. Second, councils such as our broadcasting council, should be, by nature, independent. Our council’s independence” is a farce, since its members are named (and changed) by the active ruling coalition of the day. Third, Zelezny served both as a Senator as well as director of the country’s largest media outlet, in which he appeared weekly in a shameless self-serving program. In democracies, such a blatant conflict of interest is unthinkable. However, our politicians tightened their sphincters and respected their party mandates to let him be. In fact, the Civic Democrats (ODS) teamed up with the Communist Party to vote against stripping Zelezny of his immunity. Given that the TV Nova affair is our biggest financial scandal to date, it’s inexplicable why Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla has stood by and allowed the opposition ODS to come up with the idea and structure of an investigative commission. The fact that the commission is made up of two politicians from every party is not only nonrepresentational but also guarantees that its verdict is predetermined according to the party lines of its members. After TV Nova suddenly cut off reporting about then-ODS Chairman Vaclav Klaus’ alleged Swiss account and villa, relations between Klaus and TV Nova drastically improved. ODS’ commitment was reaffirmed in drafting an extension to the station’s license till 2017. Unfavorable coverage of ODS on TV Nova has disappeared.

President Klaus has urged us to create a thick black line” regarding all misdeeds of the past 13 years. Klaus, like most Czech politicians, views the media and its members purely as to how well they serve him, not democracy. In 2002, the American Committee for Security and Cooperation in Europe declared that Klaus stifled the independence of the press in the Czech Republic. For the TV Nova affair to prosper, Zelezny had to work with the political establishment. However, those who helped him the most are us – Czech citizens. Even today, no one forces us to view the station’s soft-porn programs, Roman forum debates” or news, where reports of freak canaries dominate over serious newsfare. In Znojmo, the citizens voted Zelezny into the Senate, although they knew he was facing multiple indictments. Are we really so uncultured, and can our votes be bought for a beer? Sometimes no, but oftentimes yes. In our country, the differences in appreciating democracy and moral conduct remain large, but the will of the citizenry to improve it remains low. We need those 50 years. The TV Nova affair is proof that post-communist structures and mentalities are alive and well. Any attempt to create thick black lines” is catastrophic in that it serves to maintain the moral invalidity imposed by our politicians.

That’s why we still pay Zelezny his senator’s salary, despite his property having been confiscated to pay our state debt. Big men are often toppled by trivial events. When the famous American gangster Al Capone was caught on the soft charge of tax evasion, his empire started to disintegrate. Zelezny’s is a similar case – he needs to be brought to trial. Regarding the Broadcast Council, the solution is easy: Staff it with respected authorities without any political connections. The rest will take care of itself. In Parliament, the Investigating Committee should expand to include independent members with a majority voice. Three issues need examination: What are the facts in the TV Nova- CME split? Who was responsible for overseeing the split, and did they fulfill their responsibilities? Are there differences between Czech and European law regarding media, and did the Czech side cite these differences in its defense? Getting these answers should lead to names. If so, the Czech Republic will have realized a huge precedent for democracy: accountability. Finally, we need to stop lumping citizens into a single group. Znojmo’s citizens voted for Zelezny; in Prague, he wouldn’t have stood a chance. It’s up to the second half to start to convince the first. As Zelezny said: If we look for a culprit, we’re only giving the opposition perfect ammunition.” He’s correct. It’s time we root out the culprits and make them pay. Until then, we are the ones who are paying. 

– The writer is a physician and publisher of the New Presence magazine.


The Prague Post10.7.2003

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