TV 'free speech' dispute revives spirit of Prague

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The Independent Online

Strange things are going on in the Czech Republic. Tune in to the state television network, and the signal changes abruptly between two rival newscasts. One is so amateurish that you can see the newscaster's legs poking out beneath an ordinary table - and this is the official news bulletin. Tune in at other times and the signal has been blacked out completely.

Strange things are going on in the Czech Republic. Tune in to the state television network, and the signal changes abruptly between two rival newscasts. One is so amateurish that you can see the newscaster's legs poking out beneath an ordinary table - and this is the official news bulletin. Tune in at other times and the signal has been blacked out completely.

Over at the television studios, reporters have barricaded themselves in their newsroom. They have been there since Christmas Eve. Well-wishers bring them food and toiletries, which they raise to the newsroom in a basket on a rope. The journalists are refusing to work for the new director-general of state television, a former BBC journalist called Jiri Hodac, because, they say, he is politically biased.

This is no mere domestic row. Last week more than 50,000 people on Wenceslas Square demanded Mr Hodac's sacking - the biggest public demonstration in the country since the protests of 1989's "Velvet Revolution" in Prague's main square which toppled one of Eastern Europe's most repressive communist regimes. Parliament has been convened for an emergency debate on the situation.

As the protests against him reached their height last week, Mr Hodac was rushed to hospital, reportedly seriously ill with an undisclosed condition, amid rumours that he had suffered a heart attack.

The row, according to his opponents, who include President Vaclav Havel, is about freedom of the press. They say his appointment was forced through by supporters of Vaclav Klaus, a former prime minister who hopes to succeed Mr Havel as president, and that Mr Hodac has been put in charge to tilt the news in Mr Klaus's favour. The journalists barricaded in Czech Television's newsroom have been producing their own bulletins, full of heavy criticism of Mr Hodac. He has reacted by pulling the plug on them - which got him blamed for loss of advertising revenue - and by producing his own bulletins, the comically amateurish ones from studios rented from competing private networks.

Only one journalist defected to Mr Hodac - she was promptly made head of news and had to produce a report on her own appointment.

Speaking by mobile phone from the besieged newsroom, one of the rebel broadcasters, told The Independent on Sunday that they were not going to give up. "The stakes are very high. It is common knowledge Mr Klaus hopes to be elected president. It could help him enormously if he controls state television." Jan Urban, another of the rebel journalists, agreed: "We are in the front line. We must defend free speech and not be used as the tool of politicians."

That they have become. Mr Havel, never above a little politicking, legend though he may be, gave the rebels an exclusive interview for their bulletin, comparing Mr Hodac's appointment to the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, and warning of "the very grave dangers" of suppressing free speech.

The rebels have vast public backing. More than 140,000 people have signed a petition calling for Mr Hodac to be dismissed, and, according to one opinion poll, 89 per cent of Czechs believe he should go.

The row has galvanised the republic so dramatically because it encapsulates the country's political problems. Once heroes of the fall of communism, the Czechs' star has plummeted in the past 10 years. The European Union castigates the country in progress reports on its membership application, and endless corruption, political and economic, leaves an ugly whiff.

Into the middle of this are the two Vaclavs, Klaus and Havel, the only two politicians of any weight in the country. Mr Klaus, once called the last Thatcherite in Europe, has been, until the Hodac débâcle, by far the more popular of the two. His vision of a prosperous, self-sufficient country appeals enormously to most Czechs. Mr Havel, on the other hand, is seen as aloof from everyday problems, with his lofty moralising speeches. The hero of 1989 has become the Cassandra of Prague Castle, his warnings ignored. Until now.

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