Czech Media: Democratic or Anti-Communist?

By Wachtel, Beverly | Nieman Reports, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Czech Media: Democratic or Anti-Communist?

Wachtel, Beverly, Nieman Reports

Civil society the sphere considered separately from the economy and the state, is endangered in the Czech Republic by media transformation grounded in an uncritical critique" of the past as well as in a lingering adherence to elitist models of administration. The new policies of free-market anti-communism--often. paradoxically, both in the name of and at the expense of democracy--seem to be the result of thinking along the lines in Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm's words, that "since the North Pole is freezing cold, the opposite pole will be beautifully warm. " Stampeding toward capitalism, Czech media industries are undergoing a process of commercialization and internationalization that tends to encourage the blending of the civil and economic realms, thereby threatening participatory democracy and non-consumerist culture.

As the demands of the marketplace eclipse civil concerns and the state turns its interest from the people to the private sector and, increasingly, to its own well-being, such capitalist by-products as the death of nation-wide public radio, the restriction of political content in the media and the crippling of the national film industry begin to surface. In embracing the laissez-faire economic ideals that were formerly anathema, the state turns its back on the deleterious cultural effects of the changes that it has initiated and allowed.

As American political theorist Andrew Arato warns, "those in Eastern Europe who forget the destructive effects of the self-regulating market on the cultural fabric of society because of their hatred for state interventionism seek to rejoin Europe not as it is today...but as it once was, thereby inviting the repetition of already known disasters."

The restructuring of the Czech radio broadcasting system illuminates the hazardous ramifications of the blithe swing from anticapitalism to anti-communism. While the opening of the Czech radio frontier to international media giants has precipitated a torrential increase in listening options, it has also provoked a conflict among corporate, state and civil interests centering on the selling of the public radio frequency by the Czechoslovak Council on Radio and Television Broadcasting (CRTVB). This council was established by Parliament in the spring of 1991 after the breakdown of central media control in order to issue licenses, allocate frequencies, and set standards.

Lacking both experience with the private sector and a firm set of priorities, this regulating body showed its inadequacies during the debate lastyear that raged around the council's decision to allocate the medium-wave frequency of the public station Radiozurnal to the commercial broadcaster, Radio Echo, which has since gone bankrupt. The consequent reassignment of Radiozurnal to a frequency of smaller transmitting range means that significant portions of the Czech Republic are no longer able to receive it. Despite strenuous criticism from Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, President Vaclav Havel and the trade union of communication media, the council's decision still stands.

Havel supports protest in the popular press, disapproving of the "dangerous and exaggerated passion for privatization" in relation to the frequency change, citing that proper regulations concerning nonprofit spheres such as public broadcasting are not yet in place. He further contends that "if we have only private radio broadcasting pop music and advertisements all the could happen one day that important political information does not reach the public at all." Klaus characterizes the council's decision as "absurd and terrifying," asserting in an interview that "the government does not have the slightest chance to intervene" nor is it informed of the council's meetings.

This crisis in the dissemination of information to the public as well as in the effective hierarchy of an emerging democracy reflects the dangers inherent in a media-regulating structure that has not yet developed a system of checks and balances. …

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