Are Czech media reports on the Arab world objective?

When it comes to coverage of conflict in the Middle East, such as US military operations in Iraqi towns to "wipe out remaining Taliban groups", or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how objective is mainstream Czech media? Does it just stick to the facts or does it allow political opinion to slip in? A discussion organised by Prague's Arab association Arabesque and the Association for International Affairs focused on just that.

And, it's also the topic of today's Talking Point - does the Czech media provide the public with a fair view of Middle Eastern affairs and the Arab world?

Jan Krecek from the Faculty of Media Studies at Charles University says it doesn't:

"The media institutions are normal firms that are working on the market and you can see it in their content - the news is somewhat biased. This is because they have to make a profit."

Mr Krecek points out that any media in the world has two main powers - a selective power, when it decides what to cover and a descriptive power, the way the chosen topic is covered. The main driving force in both decision-making processes is money - the more viewers, listeners, or readers, the bigger the profit.

"How can the media make a profit? They can only do this if the report is interesting, dramatised, and popularised. In the past, this was only in fictive stories but today it's in the news and commentaries."

And there's nothing wrong with that, according to Pavel Barsa from Charles University's Political Science Institute - as long as the public has access to a good variety of reports that offer all the different views. Unfortunately, he says, the Czech Republic lacks that:

"I think it's okay if you have a weekly, which on certain topics has definite positions that are expressed systematically. I don't mind that; it's okay. But the problem is that we only have one good political weekly in the Czech Republic and if that weekly has one guy who is systematically expressing one point of view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, it's problematic because the readers don't get other points of view."

But how exactly has the Czech media been biased? Mrs Chimaa Youssef is the educational and cultural coordinator at Arabesque...

"Even in the discussion I saw there is always a connection between Islam, terrorism, and Arabs. As an Arab, I feel hurt. I see it's used and this discussion today proved to me that it still exists today. Until us Arabs try to explain that we do not agree with this. It's not just one journal or magazine a day. I see almost three or four articles of the same type in journals, as well as radio and television broadcasts in a day. They create a point of view just in one day - not once a week."

Bretislav Turecek writes for one of the country's main newspapers, Pravo:

"Unfortunately, I think when we talk about Muslims, there is not enough sensitivity. There are only a few journalists here who have personal experience, who have travelled, who have worked in the Muslim world. So journalists sometimes use words which are very offensive for local Muslims who can understand it and who can read the articles. Unfortunately, sometimes these Muslims also have very limited access to the Czech media to give them their own version of the events."

And there's also the lack of finances:

Photo: European Commission
"I would say that it's a problem faced by the media of most former communist countries of eastern Europe, with the exception of Poland which has a large newspaper that covers all the major issues even in the Middle East. However, here in the Czech Republic I am at the Middle East desk and I'm only able to go to the Middle East region several times a year. This also goes for all the other major newspapers. That is why we most of the time use second-hand information from major broadcasters. We publish or quote articles from the western press but also from the Arabic press in the Middle East. However we are usually unable to get directly to the source of information."

Reporters say the major reason why they report so little on the Arab world, or give mostly the Israeli stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, is simply because Arab countries are less open to providing journalists with information. Pravo reporter Bretislav Turecek:

"Even Arab journalists who go to Israel see an openness of the Israelis - it's possible to call the spokesman of the Israeli Army 24 hours a day and it's possible to reach the spokesman of the Prime Minister. This is really unusual in most of the Muslim countries in the Middle East, where there are so many restrictions for journalists, or generally for foreigners. So Israel knows use the foreign press for its purpose - in both the positive and the negative way."

"Unfortunately there were many Arabs at the discussion but they did not speak and share their opinions. I was looking forward to hear from them."

Says Chimaa Youssef from Arabesque. The Czech Republic has a tradition of good relations with the Arab world. The Muslims that ordinary Czechs know personally are mainly those who came to the country - predominantly in the 1950s and 1960s - to study. But the mainstream media's picture of the Arab world, as described by Mrs Youssef earlier, has darkened and Pavel Barsa from Charles University's Political Science Institute says there is a simple reason for that:

"The point is that the official government in Communist Czechoslovakia since 1967 was openly pro-Arab in Middle Eastern affairs in general but in the Israeli-Arab issue in particular. That is why many liberally-minded people of my generation automatically took an opposite view. We were anti-Communist so we thought if the Communists are with the Arabs against the Israelis, we should be on the side of the Israelis against the Arabs.

"We were on the side of the United States because it helped us found the first Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 - it is believed that Woodrow Wilson was one of those who helped our first president Masaryk to build this country. Also after the Second World War, we had a problem with the Soviet troops here and the Soviet empire but we had no problems with the Americans. So we have a completely opposite point of view on the United States than what we see in Central America or the Middle East where the United States is to them what the Soviet Union used to be for us."