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Commentary: Czech mainstream and new media legitimize racism and xenophobia

Prague/Olomouc, 23.4.2011 22:04, (ROMEA)
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The following lecture was given by František Kostlán of ROMEA. o.s., at an Anti-Racism Day event organized by the Caritas (Charita) organization in Olomouc.

Some Czech intellectuals, the media, and politicians today are lending a helping hand to the legitimization of ultra-right extremists. Today I will focus primarily on the role played by the media in this regard.

The watchdogs of democracy have retired

With only a few exceptions, the mainstream media have slowly given up on their natural role in society. Enlightened media managers, newspaper publishers, and radio and television broadcasters have evaporated from the scene: The watchdogs of democracy have retired. The mainstream media have become money factories, worshiping the circulation and ratings on which their profits are based. Unfortunately, the public broadcasting media, as Czech Radio and Czech Television officially label themselves, take this same approach to a great degree.

The Czech media justifiably criticize politicians for making irresponsible use of their freedoms, but the media outlets do the same in full color. The driving force for the media and politicians alike is profit at any cost, and the result is often a populism bordering on racism and xenophobia. The media are pushing the boundaries of what is considered ordinary human dignity, legitimizing not only racism and xenophobia, but also blatantly extreme-right ideologies and those who espouse them.

What the free hand of market can do unhampered by ethics

Professional journalistic ethics are a thing of the past. Even though some media outlets do have ethical codices which they can display in case of necessity, those codices do not work as they should in practice. Any such norms can only be effective if they are accepted by the majority of those whom they concern. This is decidedly not the case when it comes to Czech journalists or media publishers.

The use of such great doses of populism is being dictated to editors by the ethics of the free, unrestricted hand of the market. The content of newspapers or radio and television broadcasts is meeting so-called "consumer demand". Since no one knows what there is real demand for, the quality of commentary, news, and reportage has simply fallen as low as it can. Demand is estimated according to the "societal mood" or is deduced from the output of pseudo-discussants on the internet.

This "demand", of course, can also be shaped - or, to be more precise, can be wholly invented - so that media consumers will accept it as their own. This way of viewing the world was introduced to this country during the 1990s by Vladimír Železný with the launch of his private TV station, TV Nova. All of the mainstream media have gradually adopted this perspective to a greater or lesser degree, including the public broadcasters. There are some shining exceptions to this rule: Czech Radio 6, the minority news/political programs on Czech Television, and the journal RESPEKT.

Commercialization of the media

During the past decade, the transformation of the media from the "watchdogs of democracy" into purely money-making enterprises has been perfected. Circulation and ratings have become the priority, as those numbers are the basis for the numbers and prices of advertisements. The media have thus gradually turned away from their natural mission in a democratic society, significantly weakening their professional ethics and societal function.

This change in priorities has brought about a change in behavior and in the approach taken towards various topics. There is no longer an effort to achieve objectivity when processing information. Instead, the media have started pandering to their listeners, readers and viewers and have cultivated populism on a broad scale. This does not only concern the tabloids, which have always adopted this approach, but the entire media spectrum (with the exception of those outlets mentioned).

Red-Right, free-market "commented news"

Professional ethics have been suppressed not only through the methods used to process information and topics, but also by the methods used to choose topics in the first place. Today it is completely normal for news to be delivered simultaneously with commentary on the information. The authors of such reports usually add their feelings or opinions to the information, leading consumers in the direction they want them to go. They don't give consumers a chance to form their own opinions on the basis of objective information. Such "reporting", in which commentary and news are not separated, was swiped by the free hand of the market from the pre-1989 communist media, which was a tributary of the totalitarian regime and a means of propaganda for manipulating listeners, readers and viewers.

The selection of topics is also more than populist today. For example, the daily Deník, which is published by the German firm Vltava-Labe Press, often publishes news about Roma people in its regional editions that includes abusive opinions (commented news + anti-Gypsyism, racism and xenophobia). For example, one editor at the Deník – Hradec Králové regional edition wrote that a girl in Nový Bydžov had been "raped by the ethnic minority". Through such generalizations, this type of journalist contributes to inciting hate against the Roma people as a whole.

Lack of responsibility + populism = legitimization of extremism

The suppression of journalistic ethics has also created a void where the sense of responsibility used to be. When mixed with populism (in the interest of higher ratings at any cost), this is a fatal combination.

Let's take an example from Czech Television. The public broadcaster runs two so-called "contact programs" where viewers can call or write in through e-mail, Skype, and social networking sites with their opinions and questions. The moderators of these programs, of course, often read aloud those e-mails or other written inquiries which quite evidently contain racist or xenophobic claims, or they allow an obvious racist/xenophobe to call in. "Thanks" to public broadcasting, such people get the opportunity to espouse their ideology live on television.

Czech Television is thus facilitating violations of the law and exposing itself to criminal prosecution. Of course, this poses no deterrent to the editors and management of Czech Television, because their actions also assist in increasing ratings. It is clear that ratings are more important to Czech Television than the values of civilization and democracy which it is obliged by law to protect as a public service media outlet.

Legitimization of extremists as personalities

Those who make it possible for extremists to appear in public as if they were completely normal, ordinary politicians with acceptable opinions also contribute to their legitimization. In addition to the democratic political parties which sometimes have extremists on their candidate lists and the various college instructors who invite neo-Nazis and other racists to give lectures to their students, the media are also involved in this exercise. For example, Czech Television has more than once presented the chair of the dissolved Nazi Workers' Party, Tomáš Vandas, as a completely ordinary politician from a normal political party. In addition to the mainstream media, the same can be said of news server Parlamentnílisty.cz.

In the commercial mainstream media, this line has been crossed by the daily Mladá fronta DNES, which published an interview with Filip Vávra, a leading Czech ideologue of racism who has also been involved in the militant neo-Nazi initiative "National Resistance". As Jan Charvát of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University told a Czech Senate hearing on neo-Nazis, there was no way such an interview could turn out successfully, because "neo-Nazis cannot publicly espouse their real ideology, what they really think. If they were to do so, they would naturally expose themselves to criminal prosecution." Filip Vávra, in Charvát's view, merely received an opportunity from Mladá fronta DNES in that interview to use all of the tactics in the neo-Nazi racist arsenal to avoid espousing the ideology he actually recognizes.

Such tactics lead to the legitimization of extremists, because deprived of their ideological charge, their statements seem acceptable to a larger number of people, according to Jan Charvát. Here I would add that this method of legitimizing neo-Nazis applies not just to all the media, but also to those colleges that invite extremists to speak. It naturally also applies to the behavior of those politicians from democratic parties whose own populism, racism, and xenophobia are vehement contributions toward the legitimization of extreme-right opinions.

These college instructors, the media, and specific politicians have led us all into an enormous jam: Any shift toward extremism in society always leads to increased violence. The so-called "internal enemy" bears the brunt of that violence, and today this is first and foremost Roma people.

New media disseminate racism

The so-called "new media" are also contributing to the rise in anti-Gypsyism, racism and xenophobia through the new means of communication they provide. What was impossible to write during the 1990s because it would have been considered shameful is today permitted as the ordinary social norm. This primarily concerns blogs, social networking sites (mostly Facebook and Twitter) and the websites of news outlets, or rather, the discussions that readers contribute to in response to online articles.

One example comes from the most-read internet news server in this country, iDNES.cz, the internet version of Mladá fronta DNES. Inciting hatred against Roma people is the favorite sport of many bloggers there. The editors of iDNES.cz very often get publicity for the front page of their news server by running articles that are pronouncedly anti-Roma or populist, written with an obvious dose of hatred for the integration of foreigners or Roma people and for multiculturalism.

This server provides blog space to anyone. Even though it has an ethical codex according to which bloggers and discussants are to comport themselves, the people responsible for it on the editorial staff have been interpreting it more and more flexibly over time. As part of this editorial policy, iDNES.cz once even failed to remove an article attacking one of its own Roma employees even though it stank to high heaven of hatred and xenophobia. I could really give you many examples from the blogs on iDNES.cz, but it will suffice if you perform a search on the blog front page for the words "Cikán" [Gypsy], "rasismus" [racism], or "Rom".

Of course, this also applies to the straight news reporting done by iDNES.cz. For example, a significant portion of one of its reports was lifted directly from the website of the Workers' Social Justice Party (Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti - DSSS). The DSSS is the successor party to the Workers' Party (Dělnická strana - DS), which was dissolved by the Supreme Administrative Court because it was carrying on the ideology of Adolf Hitler; its national-chauvinistic, neo-Nazi ideology included elements of racism and xenophobia. The iDNES.cz report in question concerned blows exchanged between a non-Roma married couple who had both run on the DSSS candidate list and their Roma neighbors. The incident took place in Krupka. While the iDNES.cz report added a neutral statement from a police spokesperson to the content it got from the DSSS website, the journalist made no further effort to investigate. The report, therefore, is a one-sided reflection of the neo-Nazis' point of view - published as the truth. No statements from the Roma people involved were included.

The news server Novinky.cz (the internet version of the daily Právo) took an even more shameful approach to reporting on the altercation. Its rather long report on the incident includes a transcript of an interview conducted by the daily with Petr Kotáb, formerly Vice-Chair of the (neo)Nazi DS and a leading candidate for the DSSS. Once again, the reporter just added a brief statement from a police spokesperson to the interview and provided no information as to how the other side of the conflict saw it.

Pseudo-discussants online

The statements that are often tolerated in the discussions that take place beneath these blogs or news reports cannot be described as anything but the facilitation of racist and xenophobic incitement against various minorities. However, this concerns not only discussions beneath articles and blogs published by the internet versions of mainstream media outlets, but all internet discussions. For example, on the Facebook group entitled "Nesouhlasím s tresty pro Kluky z Vítkova" ("I Disagree with the Sentences for the Boys from Vítkov"), discussants have contributed many tasteless comments about the arson attack in Vítkov and about little Natálka, the Roma infant who suffered burns over 80 % of her body as a result of that attack.

Here are some examples:

Michal Vandal Tenkl - That pig should have croaked and the rest of the trash TOO!!Václav Mendel - Even if someone had been burned alive, five years would be too long of a sentence!Martin Genetix Nádaský - [in Slovak] Finally someone had the courage to do something about those black mugs. Greetings from Slovakia.Mara Marv Svab - the only thing those guys deserve is a STATE MEDALOrochimaru Kun - The only good Gypsy is a dead one

Responses to these contributions:

Baron de Zoptau - let's go at it together and fire up the ovens until there is only smoke left :DDDJerry O' Thomas - I would move all of you multiculti tossers who defend those stinking black maggots one by one into the building so you could fully experience these Gypsy sons of bitchesMichal Zácha - If the DS had won the elections, all their families in the Czech Republic would have gone up in smoke!

The new media are also, therefore, making a massive contribution to this shift in the societal atmosphere toward ultra-right extremism, legitimizing and placing at the center of events the opinions of sociopaths from the dregs of society who previously did their shouting somewhere on the fringes - and justifiably so. This is another reason anti-Gypsy, racist, and xenophobic diatribes are spreading in society - "thanks" to the mainstream and new media, the espousal of these views is no longer considered shameful.

Notions become ideology

Naturally, this deterioration has more than one cause. Certain notions which have risen to the level of an ideology are contributing to this shift, and we constantly encounter them during our work. Today it is an ordinary phenomenon, a reflection of reality, that people are overwhelmed by news about politicians' constant affairs, causes, and jams, by the various proofs and pseudo-proofs related to those matters, by real information, half-information and disinformation, by propaganda, by the evidence or results of the battles taking place behind the scenes, etc.

Some consumers of the news need to approach the world in a different way, a simpler way, because the "reality" they see depresses them and they are unable to come to grips with the assault on their understanding that the media delivers. Ideology provides them with fertile ground for that approach (here I mean ideology in the broadest sense of the word, not just neo-Nazi ideology) because it understandably gives them a simplified world view.

Any ideology primarily includes a recipe for "saving the world", which must necessarily be simplified in order to be at least somewhat comprehensible. A person afflicted by notions which have become an ideology has, thanks to that ideology, a predetermined construct within which to move and think. These people then do their best to wrestle with everything life brings them, in all its complexity, within the partitions of this primitively erected construction. The result of this deformation of reality is the conviction that complex matters can be resolved in a very simple way.

Nazi (and other totalitarian) ideologies then introduce claims into this behavioral model which their followers consider unconditionally true. Everything that conforms to this type of ideology is the truth, and everything that does not conform to it is a lie.

Civil society is still too weak

Ideological demagoguery and dogmatism flourish in unstable environments like the one reigning in this country. They flourish thanks to the fact that the media and political culture here is practically undeveloped. They flourish because civil society here is still in its infancy and is therefore very weak. The voice of the people who work in NGOs helping others is still much weaker here than is customary in countries with mature democracies.

Of course, we can improve this and influence it all on our own. This should, at the very least, provide us with a little optimism for a future when the pendulum will return once again from its current heading toward ultra-right extremism and will swing back toward the side of freedom and human rights. At least, we hope so.

František Kostlán, Gwendolyn Albert, František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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