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World Press Freedom Review
1999 World Press Freedom Review
The media scene in the Czech Republic was shaken in 1999 by the dispute between the director of the Czech private TV Nova, Vladimir Zelezny, and the American billionaire, Ronald Lauder.
The dispute over the control of TV Nova started in August 1999. The battle resulted in the dismissal of Zelezny from his post as the general director of the company CNTS (Ceska Nezavisla Televizni Spolecnost). CNTS is owned by CME (Central European Media Enterprise), CET 21 (a private Czech enterprise), and Ceska Sporitelna (a Czech Bank). CNTS was the main service provider for TV Nova. Zelezny was accused by CME of violating the exclusive agreement between CNTS and his company CET 21. As the broadcast license holder for TV Nova, Zelezney broke the cooperation with CNTS and commenced broadcasting alone.
Zelezny’s actions were not accepted by CNTS or CME. Lauder sued Zelezny claiming he had lost US$ 23.5 million, and CME stock dropped from US$ 16 to US$ 2. An arbitration court in Stockholm ruled that Zelezny should renew cooperation with CNTS. The verdict, however, cannot be carried out by Zelezny as it violates Czech law. Zelezny also claims that despite his 60 percent majority in CET 21, the license holding company is completely independent of him. He claimed that he asked his partners to agree to comply with the order but they refused. On November 17, Zelezny appealed to the International Court in Amsterdam. A full hearing is expected to take place in the first half of 2000.
Lauder accused the Czech Republic of not protecting his investment in the TV station, claiming that it was a violation of the 1958 international treaty between the United States and the Czech Republic. In a mark of protest, he published advertisements in the New York Times and the Washington Post outlining his experience in the Czech Republic, warning off investors from doing business in the country.
A draft press law, designed to replace the Czechoslovak Press law of 1966, created controversy this year. The initial draft provided a right of reply to anyone whose honour, dignity or privacy had been infringed, even if the original report was true. Many objectors, including IPI, asserted that such a provision would not protect freedom of the press, but extinguish it. Additional amendments to the draft deleted the absolute right of reply provision.
Just over half of Czechs (52 percent) are convinced that the media are free in the Czech Republic, while almost 40 per cent of Czechs believe the opposite, according to a poll conducted by the Sofres-Factum agency in early April, reported CTK. "Part of the public ascribe an inappropriately strong influence on the freedom of speech to foreign owners of (Czech) newspapers," Sofres-Factum Director Jan Herzmann said. 89 percent consider freedom of the press to be an indispensable condition for the existence of democratic society, the poll showed, but only 44 percent of those polled said they found what they called "necessary information" in the radio and television broadcasts and in newspapers. Fifty-three percent said they appreciated most Czech journalists. Journalists enjoy far higher popularity than parliament, the government and many other institutions. Most of the respondents said that accurate and reliable information is broadcast by the public Czech Television (65 percent) and Czech Radio (62 percent). 72 percent described the broadcasts of commercial channels as a "rush for sensation"; 59 percent said that of commercial radio stations; and 56 percent of the press. When asked which media they trusted most, people most often mentioned Czech Television (more than 40 percent), Nova television (14 percent), the daily Mlada fronta Dnes (9 percent) and Czech Radio (less than 7 percent).
One person who is certailnly not known for commending the media is Prime Minister Milos Zeman. "Most journalists have the intelligence of remedial school graduates," he told Czech Radio this year. "They are liars and amateurs." He also described journalists as stupid, corrupt and "damned idiots." In addition, Zeman accused former Foreign Minister Jozef Zieleniec of using state funds to bribe 60 journalists, though he has so far offered no proof to back up his allegations. The Prime Minister went on to insinuate that the majority of Czech journalists are on the take.
The reliability of Czech journalism was brought into further question after TV Nova broadcast a news report which turned out to be false. The report indicated that a government minister had been taken to hospital with a gunshot wound. On November 14, half an hour before a live broadcast, a phone call came in to the TV Nova news desk claiming a minister had been shot. The hospital confirmed that an unidentified victim with a gunshot wound had indeed been brought in. A few minutes later, a man claiming to be from the office of prime minister called the station and requested live air time for the prime minister to make an important announcement. The station aired the story with the caveat that the story had not been confirmed by official sources. It transpired that the injured man was not a minister and that Nova had fallen prey to a hoax set up by Premysl Svora, former head of the news service of CNTS. Svora said he had orchestrated the set-up to provide material for an article in his new magazine which would illustrate how easily the Czech media could be manipulated.
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