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Commentary: Czech Television report from Brno on 1 May - Václav Havel looking to brawl?

Prague, 4.5.2011 18:13, (ROMEA)
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Czech Television doesn't have it easy in today's world. The societal atmosphere and various conflicting pressures are leaving their mark on its news reporting. It must sometimes be really very hard to maintain the effort to be objective and to uphold the ethical/professional side of things. This primarily concerns broadcasts by the news channel ČT 24. Things are going on at Czech Television that seem to indicate that all these pressures are actually suppressing its public broadcasting function.

Perhaps because of those pressures, we often see what seems to be brilliant organizational and technical work combined with superficiality and an inability to put things into context. There are many examples of this, including the various excellently prepared discussion programs with debaters from all over the world, or from across Czech society, from whom we never learn anything essential. Those designing the programs feel no need to go deeper into the issues, to say nothing of reporting detailed, objective information. Given all the pressure they are under, it is safer to water everything down and avoid the essence of the matter. What if someone were to make an angry phone call from Prague Castle, or from a party headquarters?

In short, for good television news, people are needed who, in addition to their professional craft and ethics, also have a certain dose of the courage needed to overcome these forces and similar obstacles. In today's world, evidently the only people who can really succeed in upholding professional ethics are those who are courageous and self-confident, who are not afraid for their jobs, who are primarily concerned about the story.

In the first place, understandably, this has to do with the general director of the station. Of course, it is the case that every director has only been appointed head of public television thanks solely to the very politicians who are also the main producers of the pressures brought to bear on television news reporting. After 1989, there has only been one general director of public television who had enough courage to tell politicians in this country that he would not be taking their ideas about television news reporting into consideration, and that was Ivo Mathé. He knew what was in store for him, but he did not back down. The television broadcasting council punished him for his effrontery and elected an inexperienced young person as the new general director. This started an enormous media/political flop that resulted in the television crisis and hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in late 2000 and early 2001.

Czech Television has not recovered from that to this day. This concerns not only its general director, but everyone, even some otherwise excellent journalists who allowed their general concern about high-quality, impartial information reaching the citizens to go by the wayside once they joined public broadcasting, because such reporting could have personal repercussions for them. In addition to the head of news reporting and some editors and journalists, this also includes some moderators, first and foremost Václav Moravec. I sometimes have the feeling that through these pressures, the television management, the editors' direct superiors and the dramaturgs have been directly programmed for this less courageous, less ethically professional side. Moderators, for example, very often don't let someone even respond to the question they have just posed. When someone speaks longer than 10 or 15 seconds, they impatiently interrupt them irrespective of whether the guest is saying something meaningful or not. At other times they let a politician repeat his advertisement for his party three or four times in a row, because that's why he came to the studio - instead of interrupting him and forcing him to talk about the essence of the matter at hand. (Unfortunately, moderators succeed in interrupting only sometimes, not always when it is called for, to be precise.)

The most tragic role played by these moderators occurs during audience participation programs, when they allow someone on the phone or in person to engage in racist babble, or when they read a question sent by e-mail, Facebook or Twitter which is evidently hateful and xenophobic with respect to a particular minority. These moderators seem not to be oriented in this issue and the laws governing it, they seem not have enough determination to fulfill the ethical criteria of their profession. It is as if they prefer populism and superficiality to their craft because populism and superficiality get higher ratings.

I do not want to say that Czech Television is rotten to the core - on the contrary, its discussion programs and news reporting are still the best offerings in Czech-language television. I also do not want to say that good professionals don't work there – on the contrary, some of the best journalists work there. That, of course, makes the whole thing even more tragic. When dilettantism and unethical behavior were committed by the team led by Jana Bobošíková (blessed be her memory) during the television crisis, it surprised no one, because those were people who for the most part had nothing to do with the craft of journalism. When the same thing, in a slicker, more sophisticated form, is committed by moderators and journalists who are good at what they do, the entire situation is transformed into a theater of the absurd.

It is exactly this fetish of "higher ratings" that is leading not only to the populism of television news (across all the channels, not just Czech Television), but also to a dangerous change in the atmosphere of this society. What is worse, this poisoned ground is producing strange growths which are not only absurd, but blatantly unethical and unprofessional. As just one example of many, I present you here with a transcript of Czech Television's reporting on the events of 1 May ("Události" [News], 1. 5. 2011), when neo-Nazis and those opposed to them assembled in the city of Brno:

***

News anchor in the studio: A dramatic afternoon in Brno. Roughly 400 right-wing radicals wanted to march through the city. More than 1 000 opponents stood against them. However, both camps were kept apart by 700 police officers. In the end the protesters forced the extremists to change their route.

Voice-over commentary over images: The most dramatic part of the afternoon in Brno - smoke bombs thrown at the radicals' parade. What happened before then? Tensions just after noon. First, hate slogans from both sides (clip of a demonstrator holding a megaphone and shouting "Against fascism, against racism"). Roma together with a civic initiative link arms to form a human shield (clip of Roma people chanting "These are our streets.") A few meters away, the ultra-right conveners and police are preventing journalists from monitoring the Workers' Youth. Tomáš Vandas and his followers are not respecting the court ban on the Workers' Party. (A clip of the words "Workers' Party" and its logo, then a clip of Vandas, who says: "This is Workers' Party No. 1 and No. 2 - and if No. 2 has to close, there will be a No. 3.") Now study the distribution of forces: About 300 ultra-rightists in the park, then the police, and a few meters away from them, at the start of Cejl street, a thousand opponents.

Reporter #1, live: The promoters of the extreme right set out through the streets of the city of Brno at approximately 3:30. Of course, on the recommendations of police, their march traveled in the opposite direction than the one they had planned (the screen shows a map and an incorrectly marked neo-Nazi route - they actually marched elsewhere than depicted). Instead of immediately clashing with the crowd on Cejl street, the group wouldn't get there until the end of the march - but even that didn't happen.

Reporter #2, live: In the end, police kept both groups apart with two cordons of riot units and diverted the end of the march so the groups would not meet.

Voice-over commentary over images: At 4:30, riot police push the Workers' Youth back to the place where the march started, keeping both groups, who want to fight, apart.

Reporter #3, live (this shot is long, lasting 1:54): After 5 PM, the blockading crowd of roughly 500 starts breaking up.

Voice-over commentary over images: A total of 15 people arrested, 13 of them right-wing radicals. For example, this person because of his speech (clip of the speaker), another because he had a gas pistol with him, others for wearing banned symbols on their clothing, others for brawling or for illegal banners. Luboš Rosí and the Brno news studio.

***

This journalistic gem can be seen here: http://www.ceskatelevize.cz/ivysilani/1097181328-udalosti/211411000100501/obsah/155804-brno-centrem-prvomajovych-demonstraci/

Let's start at the beginning. The reporting starts with smoke bombs, because (in Czech Television's view) this was the only "real" excitement (blood, controversy, violence) and must necessarily be the main part of the report. It would not be sufficiently populist otherwise. Czech Television probably did not know that four young people, two men and two women, sat down in front of the "right-wing radicals" (who are really neo-Nazis) and that the neo-Nazis, according to some reports, "walked over them" - and according to other information, "kicked them". Had the editors known, they could have reported that "four left-wing extremists illegally and violently blocked the path of the peaceful 1 May celebration parade of our dear leader, Tomáš Vandas." Or perhaps the editors did know this fact and did not broadcast it because it would have shown the real nature of the "extremists"?

Next, Czech Television reports that both sides shouted hate slogans at one another. As an example of this hate, the editor chose this slogan: "Against fascism, against racism." According to Czech Television, when someone stands up to fascism and racism - the espousal of which is illegal in the Czech Republic - then that person is expressing their hatred. According to the report, therefore, in the case of the neo-Nazis and their opponents, these were two equally hateful little groups. This also follows from the other commentary made later: "At 4:30, riot police push the Workers' Youth back to the place where the march started, keeping both groups, who want to fight, apart."

Two possibilities: No. 1, either the editor knows practically nothing about this entire matter, is unfamiliar with what preceded this entire action and this entire neo-Nazi march, and is unable to put these things into context. The second possibility (once again): The editor is intentionally siding with the neo-Nazis in his editorial commentary.

Or perhaps this editor is "just" a dilettante. Maybe that is why he did not mention that the BRNO BLOCKS and "We Don't Want Neo-Nazis in Brno" initiatives placed great, repeated emphasis on the fact that their blockade and other actions must be strictly nonviolent. The editor did not know that those who blocked the "extremists" march are not antagonists of the neo-Nazis, but people of democratic sensibilities who cannot bear the growing prevalence of racism and xenophobia in this society. Lastly, he evidently knew nothing about the fact that the nonviolent blockade was supported by many public figures, including former President Václav Havel, Tánya Fischerová, Jiřina Šiklová, Jan Kraus, Petra Procházková, Tomáš Halík, Iva Bittová, Simona Babáčková, etc.

If the editor is going to report that both of these little groups wanted to fight, he might as well have said straight out that Havel wanted to duke it out with Vandas. The effect would have been the same.

The only people who were looking for a fight that day in Brno were a few dozen neo-Nazis. Their desire to butt heads with their opponents was so strong that they managed to break through the police cordon on Malinovského náměstí after the march ended, but viewers of Czech Television will not know that.

The only participant from either the blockade or the march who was identified and whose "sound bite" was used was the chair of the former neo-Nazi Workers' Party and current Workers' Social Justice Party, Tomáš Vandas. No other public figure, none of the organizers of the actions against the Nazis, none of the local Roma people - and many of them were there - got that same opportunity.

The report also did not capture what the neo-Nazis said in the speeches they gave. One speaker, a Nazi from Germany, indirectly called for violence against "human garbage", as he termed migrants. By doing so, he broke the law, and the assembly should have been immediately dispersed on the spot.

The speeches made at the counter-demonstration events by democratic people were also not broadcast. In addition to other public figures, those who spoke on the podium in front of the Museum of Roma Culture included the journalist Jarmila Balážová, Czech Senator Jaromír Štětina, Green Party chair Ondřej Liška, the Dean of the Faculty of Information Sciences at Masaryk University, Brno, and others.

The total number of those blocking the neo-Nazi march was between 1 500 and 2 200 - estimates of their numbers vary, but under no circumstances were there only 500 of them. Similarly, there were not just 300 neo-Nazis, but 400 of them at least, and probably more than 500. The report also did not mention all the related events leading up to Brno, such as the marches in Nový Bydžov and Krupka, where not only the neo-Nazis broke the law, but so did bureaucrats from the Security Policy Department of the Czech Interior Ministry, municipal officials, and police officers.

The overall impression of this reporting is: Two small bands of hooligans and street fighters were unfortunately not allowed to clash by police. Czech Television then had to do a lot of work in order to broadcast a report that would be sufficiently populist.

Dozens of public figures have described this well in an open letter to Czech Television representatives regarding their reporting of 1 May in Brno. Their letter is here: http://www.romea.cz/english/index.php?id=detail&detail=2007_2402

This isn't just about the reporter who wrote the commentary and put this report together. This report was also broadcast by the news editor (sic!). The chief news editor at Czech Television has not publicly apologized for his subordinates' actions. The questions raised here concern him as well: Is Czech Television intentionally playing to the "right-wing extremists", or is it "merely" a dilettante organization? Is no one even thinking about these questions there?

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