Journalists Shrug Off President’s Inaugural Insults

European Journalism Centre

Pledging to fight ‘godfather mafias’ and ‘neo-Nazis’ was part of new Czech President Milos Zeman’s inauguration speech in March. The first Czech president to be directly elected by the people, he spoke of ‘three islands of negative deviation’ in his speech. The third? ‘A sizeable portion of Czech media’ that ‘focuses on brainwashing, media massage and manipulation of public opinion.’

While that raised the eyebrows of many; local journalists contacted by the EJC don’t see his words having any effect on their profession, and feel their ability to their jobs and media freedom is not endangered in the least.

“Despite what Zeman said I don’t think freedom of speech as guaranteed by the constitution is threatened,” said Katerina Safarikova, editor of Ceska Televize’s web pages.

“Zeman is a man of the past, spent the last 10 years in his retreat in the forest. He resumed political activity thinking the world was the same as 10 years ago, including the media.”

Zeman was Prime Minister from 1998-2002 and to say he had a tenuous relationship with the media is putting it mildly. Unfortunately, it seems these negative feelings have carried over into the present day, when both the media and the country have changed significantly.

“Most Prague-based media are right-of-centre leaning and that runs contrary to Zeman’s beliefs but I think he hasn’t come to accept media as an independent institution,” said Jan Richter, a journalist with Czech Radio.

“His comments in his speech took it to another level – to say the media are corrupt mafia and liken them to neo-Nazis is outrageous and not true. The comments came after months of campaigning and the media was against him. But he should know better.”

Both Richter and Safarikova mentioned that freedom of speech is not under threat here, and Tomas Nemecek, editor of a weekly law and justice supplement for daily Lidove noviny, who also writes on society and politics added that in the Reporters without Borders´ Press Freedom Index 2013 the Czech Republic is rated No. 16.

“The Czech Republic has a competitive print media market, the best public TV in the post-communist area and a flourishing blogosphere,” he said via email.

“No matter what an obscure politician who accidentally got into the mostly ceremonial position of the Czech president says, the local media scene is one of the most evident blessings of the last 23 years.”

When it comes to the daily grind, more pressing issues seem to be at hand and these are no different than what’s hurting media organizations worldwide – time, money, staff.

“It would be good to have more time and money for organizations,” Richter said. “More staff would be better; it would make me a better journalist if I had time to work the story.” He adds that working for a public broadcaster the structure can be a bit rigid but he’s never felt pressured to not follow or abandon a particular story.

“Stories might be cut if they are deemed uninteresting or unbalanced,” he said. “Some stories might not get done because we can only get one voice, then it might be scrapped. But I’ve not encountered any political pressure regarding stories here. I don’t think it or media freedom is an issue.”

Economics and training are the biggest detriments to journalism here, Safarikova said.

“It is economics – we are a small country and a small media scene, especially print – what I see are bleak times ahead and it’s already happening with cooperation between dailies,” she said.

“Some of them belong to the same owner but have very different histories, traditions and readers. But you need money to support the teams so they integrate departments, for example sharing a foreign desk, photo desk, etc. I see this leading to a reduction in different opinions, leads, angles. It’s a threat, but money driven.” She’d also like to see more role models for younger journalists.

“Education and practice – good principles and strong editors to work with journalists to point out mistakes, lapses in stories,” she said. “You also need a place to practice – if the recession continues inevitably the number of papers will be reduced, private TV stations will be forced to comply with what audiences are demanding which means less news. This reduction and concentration of media is bad.”

These thoughts, common to and probably affecting journalists everywhere, have not changed these three professionals’ feelings about their jobs. All seemed to be passionate about journalism, with Nemecek voicing it.

“It is the best job you can have. Really. I mean it.”