The Voracious Readers in Czechoslovakia

Article excerpt

JOURNALISTS IN THE newly independent Czech Republic are discovering that influencing the political process in a free-market democracy may be as difficult a task as overcoming the ideological control of the old Communist regime.

Almost five years after the Velvet Revolution, many reporters are dissatisfied by what they perceive as their lack of clout.

By Western standards, Czechs are still voracious readers, despite the inroads made by television news. A country of 10 million people, the Czech Republic has eight national newspapers with a combined circulation of nearly 1.8 million.

Readers enjoy a wide selection of dailies and weeklies, from the flashy tabloid Blesk to the no-nonsense Lidove Noviny, from the unapologetically Communist Halo Noviny to its rightwing rival, Necenzurovane Noviny.

To what extent, however, do readers -- especially the politicians among them -- pay attention and respond to what they read?

If political scandals are the measure, the answer is not enough, according to Jiri Kryspin, a deputy editor at Lidove Noviny. Many of his colleagues agree.

Estimating that there were 30 political scandals last year, Kryspin puts the success rate at a mere 10%. The difficulties facing journalists include efforts by politicians to dismiss criticism as politically motivated, and the belief among officials that they are not accountable.

Says Kryspin: "Journalists often touch only the surface of scandals and do not get to the bottom of things .... It's difficult to get beneath the surface, and the state of society is such that the use of heavy weapons is required to get a politician to resign. It has to be a very big scandal. In Germany, suspicion alone is sufficient for someone to be removed from politics."

Among last year's three journalistic triumphs, Kryspin includes the case of Jiri Setina, the controversial prosecutor general. Setina resigned from his post last September, a little more than a month after Rude Pravo, formerly the Communist Party organ and now a leader in investigative journalism, accused him of improperly obtaining a government apartment. As other newspapers launched their own inquiries, the list of alleged improprieties lengthened, prompting politicians to join journalists in calling on Setina to step down.

Jana Petrova, spokeswoman for Premier Vaclav Klaus' ruling Civic Democratic Party, claims that personnel changes in the government are hindered by the lack of qualified specialists and the need for consensus among coalition partners.

"If the political situation were more stable, if there were no fear that things could revert to the way they were, or that an opposition party would try to change things, then newspapers would act to greater effect," Petrova says. …