In Other Words

Czechs on the Media

Konec ceskeho tisku (The End of the Czech Press) By Borivoj Celovsky 316 pages, Ostrava: Tilia, 2002 (in Czech, 2d ed.) Imagine that most U.S. print media were in the hands of two or three Japanese companies: It’s the stuff of which globalization nightmares are made. Yet if you substitute German and Swiss capital for ...

Konec ceskeho tisku (The End of the Czech Press)
By Borivoj Celovsky
316 pages, Ostrava: Tilia, 2002 (in Czech, 2d ed.)

Imagine that most U.S. print media were in the hands of two or three Japanese companies: It’s the stuff of which globalization nightmares are made. Yet if you substitute German and Swiss capital for Japanese, that is pretty much the picture in the Czech Republic. After 1989, Eastern and Central Europe saw countless publications spring to life. But who was footing the bill? In the case of the Czech Republic, German and Swiss companies now own 80 percent of Czech newspapers and magazines. Foreign capital — mostly German, Austrian, Swiss, French, and Scandinavian — also dominates print media in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and the Baltic states.

In the 1990s, no one seemed terribly worried about foreign investment. On the contrary, the breakup of the Communist Party press and the state media monopoly was seen as a precondition for democracy. Foreign capital was badly needed to modernize production and printing equipment, and Western management and technical expertise were also welcome. For foreign media companies, the emerging print media markets in Eastern Europe posed alluring opportunities at bargain prices. The Czech government even gave away its first private tv license. German firms Rheinisch-Bergische Druckerei und Verlagsgesellschaft (RBVG) and Passauer Neue Presse (PNP) began acquiring Czech press in the early 1990s; today, they own and publish, along with Swiss Ringier and Dow Jones-Handelsblatt (a joint U.S.-German venture), more than 85 percent of the total circulation of the Czech daily press. The distribution network is also German owned. (Meanwhile, Germany’s Bertelsmann ag and Axel Springer, France’s Hersant, and Britain’s Mirror Group were taking over a similar portion of the Hungarian newspaper market.)

As the title of his book suggests, Czech historian Borivoj Celovsky laments this development. In The End of the Czech Press, Celovsky argues that foreign ownership of newspapers is "in conflict with our national interests." Though he never defines "national interests," Celovsky clearly believes that preservation of national culture cannot be entrusted to outsiders. Capital is never neutral, he argues, and foreign ownership means the Czech press has lost its independence. He sees the German takeover — especially in light of Germany’s historical quest for power in the region — as a crisis. If Czechs don’t wake up, they will end up serving as "the coachmen and accountants of Bundesrepublik Europa," the author warns, and they will follow in the footsteps of the Lusatian Sorbs, an ancient Slavic people whose national identity and independence dissolved in the vast German sea.

Celovsky blames the Czech government for failing to prevent this takeover. Many countries, including Canada and France, limit foreign ownership and control of their media, he notes. He also argues that the government’s Antimonopoly Office was asleep at the switch during 2000–01, when pnp completed its acquisition of 50 regional newspapers. The number of national dailies has declined to five (five years earlier there were ten), and only one is Czech owned — Pravo, a Communist Party offspring "privatized" by its own staff. And Pravo is now apparently for sale.

Celovsky, who lived for several decades in Canada before returning to his native country, is on weaker grounds invoking Canada as a potential model for the Czech Republic. Ownership of Canadian print media is concentrated in three large conglomerates. Even more problematic is his assumption that German ownership dictates editorial policy and censors unwelcome news. (It doubtless comes as no surprise to him that the German-owned press has ignored his book.) Celovsky fails to provide compelling evidence of bias in the German-owned press or that Czech editors and reporters are simply tools of German capital. My own recent conversations with leading journalists and media commentators lend no support to this view. However, Karel Hvizdala, doyen of Czech journalism, expressed a related concern that Czech papers have lost their distinctive imprimatur — becoming ever more similar and tabloidlike — because the three main foreign owners possess so much of the market and compete for the same advertising and readers.

The first edition of Celovsky’s book, published in 2001, got some attention — if only because he sent it to 1,300 people, including deputies in Parliament, members of the Academy of Sciences, university professors, and leading historians. The second edition includes some of their responses. Milos Zeman, until recently the Social Democratic prime minister, explains that because the Czech Republic is striving to join the European Union (EU), whose cornerstone is the free movement of capital, ownership of newspapers is not a subject fit for government discussion. Zeman’s cabinet colleague, Minister of Culture Pavel Dostal (who is still in office), admits that previous governments have made "irreparable errors" in this area, but given international agreements concerning protection of private investment, his office could do nothing. Such replies led Celovsky to remove from his second edition the question mark that appeared in the title of the first.

Yet his arguments resonated with many recipients of the book, particularly as it appeared during a major row concerning Sudeten Germans’ demands for reparations on account of their postwar expulsion by the Czechs. Because prominent Austrian and German politicians threatened to delay Czech entry into the EU pending resolution of this issue, the second edition of Celovsky’s book found an even more receptive audience.

It is symptomatic of the unsettled state of post-Communist society that the debate Celovsky initiated erupted nearly 10 years after foreign ownership of Czech press became a fact. Though Celovsky doesn’t mention it, some journalists have charged that PNP has engaged in unethical practices, such as publishing advertising disguised as editorial content and refusing to accept ads from rival candidates for public office. Irena Valova, former head of the Czech Journalists’ Syndicate, has argued that German publishers use standards abroad that they couldn’t get away with at home. According to Journalists’ Newsline, a project of the International Federation of Journalists, Günter Verheugen, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, implicitly acknowledged the problem in May 2002 when he "promised to contact the headquarters of German-owned media houses to impress on them the need to incorporate the values of EU treaties in their companies" in the accession states.

Nonetheless, Celovsky’s critique misses the larger picture on two counts. First of all, most Czechs get their information and news from radio, television (including cable), and the Internet. A significant increase in the use of electronic media at the expense of print media has been apparent throughout Eastern and Central Europe. In fact, Czechs are — after Estonians — the most wired in post-Communist Europe. Twenty-eight percent of the population goes online, about the same proportion as in France. Yet Celovsky does not discuss the role of broadcast media (where foreign investment is more regulated) or the advent of the information age, even though he himself has used Internet-based publications to disseminate his views.

Second, he ignores the dangers inherent in government involvement in the media. As French writer Albert Camus said in 1944, "The press is free when it does not depend on either the power of government or the power of money." Insofar as Celovsky’s book deals only with the "power of money," it takes a one-eyed view of the problem journalists in Eastern and Central Europe face. A case in point is Respekt, an investigative weekly owned by Karel Schwarzenberg, the independently wealthy scion of Austrian-Czech aristocracy and the former head of President Vaclav Havel’s office. The paper faced 22 libel and defamation suits between 1996 and 2001 while it was reporting on corruption in the government, in state-owned banks and enterprises, and among various shadowy figures profiting from the same. In 2001, then Prime Minister Zeman openly requested that each member of his cabinet sue Respekt to put the paper out of business.

In 2000–01, Respekt was one of several papers investigating corrupt contracting practices by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and implicating its head, Jan Kavan, and the ministry’s secretary general, Karel Srba. Much of the damning evidence against Kavan and Srba was ferreted out by Sabina Slonkova, a 29-year-old journalist at the rbvg-owned Mlada Fronta Dnes (Youth Front Today). Srba’s troubles worsened in July 2002, when he was arrested for planning Slonkova’s murder. Unperturbed, Kavan became chair of the current U.N. General Assembly — despite the fact that President Havel had openly suggested Kavan should resign.

Celovsky may be right that foreign ownership of media has brought mixed blessings to Eastern and Central Europe. But so far, the greatest threats to press freedom and independence have come from the public realm, the weakness of civil society, and the unscrupulous political elites that seek to bend the media to serve their own ends.

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