Waking the Public Sphere: Czech Politics and Media Are Caught in a Sensationalist Cycle That Undermines Democracy

By Cunningham, Benjamin | The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Waking the Public Sphere: Czech Politics and Media Are Caught in a Sensationalist Cycle That Undermines Democracy


Cunningham, Benjamin, The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs


Irresponsibility is common in children and teenagers. In fact, the very concept of maturity is tied directly to the ideas of age, growth and change. A story about a high school student throwing a party when their parents are away on vacation is funny, whimsical, even a right of passage. A middle-aged man who does the same thing is sad.

While Czech democracy is hardly middle-aged, now 20 years old, it is hardly a child either. The suits have gotten nicer, the cars sleeker, and the mustaches more neatly cropped since 1989, but the practice of politics sadly still resembles the social dynamics of an elementary school playground. Examples abound, one need look no further than the domestic infighting that fostered the collapse of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek's government in the middle of the Czech's EU Presidency.

A Vacuous Public Sphere

While a culture of frivolous bickering is bad enough on its own, and arguably even understandable as 20-year-olds are hardly expected to be fully mature, more distressing is the way an immature political culture has combined with a sensationalist press to cyclically solidify and entrench one another as the status quo. In short, poorly practiced politics combined with a half-baked public sphere--or the mythical space where debate and discussion takes place--generates a self-sustaining loop of scandal, politics of personal rivalry, and a system becoming less democratic rather than more. What lies ahead on the present path is not further maturation, but stagnation and decline.

The root of the problem is of course a disinterested, unengaged public, unwilling or unable to hold government accountable. This is not by any means a problem limited to the Czech Republic or post-communist states. The originality in the Prague variant of this largely global affliction is the overdevelopment of the most trivial parts of a properly functioning public sphere while at the same time lacking a public sphere's essential base components. Perhaps the most clear cut example of this, and one that points at a poisonous cohabitation between an underdeveloped media and immature politics, was the Jan Morava affair of 2008.

The Jan Morava Affair

Journalist Janek Kroupa triggered the incident by arranging to stage scandalous photos with the intent of facetiously selling them on the open market. The goal was to catch a politician, in a sort of freelance sting operation, who was willing to pay for the photos, and then produce a story exposing that politician. Kroupa found himself a willing accomplice in Deputy Vlastimil Tlusty (or perhaps it was Tlusty who found himself an accomplice).

So after staging pictures of Tlusty bathing with a beauty, and another tawdry twist or two, Kroupa got his man: an insignificant 29-year old scapegoat deputy named Jan Morava. All this passed for investigative reporting and any potential follow-up of the story's larger implications--like whether Morava was acting on behalf of someone else--quickly petered out, much like the government commission formed to investigate the affair that as of July 2009 still has yet to meet. What actually happened was that a scandal story was published before there was an actual scandal. The story sold papers, but did nothing to root out or expose significant or relevant corruption in the Czech national government. Afterwards, things moved on just as they had before.

Extreme as it may be, the Morava affair is unfortunately emblematic of the standard bond between media and politics in the Czech Republic. On any given day, headlines are dominated by speculation rather than contemplation, unsourced and unsubstantiated statements in lieu of facts or long view analysis. The willingness to publish such drivel means that politicians need to offer little in substance. Knowing they have a ready made forum in which to work out their personal grievances means they need not worry about producing tangible results to make their public name; they need only to beat potential opponents to the punch in successive media jousts. …

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