Columnist Milos Cermak: Czech journalism lacks tradition but now approaching western standards

Milos Cermak, photo: CTK

Milos Cermak is one of the Czech Republic's leading newspaper columnists, and is a regular contributor to both the liberal daily Lidove noviny and the social affairs and arts magazine Reflex. When we spoke at his downtown Prague office last week topics included Czech journalistic standards, whether there really are orchestrated campaigns against politicians, and if Czech papers come under pressure from advertisers to report, or not report, in a certain way. But first Milos Cermak (who, by the way, is an exceedingly tall gentleman) told that he wasn't so drawn to the trade in his early years.

"I wanted to be a writer. I didn't want to be a journalist, because when I was 15, 16, 17 it was in the '80s and I didn't think that journalism, writing for daily papers, was a noble profession. I really didn't read newspapers very much.

"Then the year 1989 came and I was studying computer science or cybernetics, and I finished my master's degree in 1991, though by then I was already a journalist. I started in 1990 and I've been a journalist since then."

Given the fact that you've been working in journalism here since the fall of communism, from the beginning I guess of modern Czech journalism...I know it's a big question, but generally speaking how would you rate the standard of Czech journalism?

"It's a very difficult question. I think...I think the standard is OK (chuckles). This is the sort of question like, do you like Czech girls? Yes, of course I do, they're very nice. Some of them are very beautiful, some of them are not so very beautiful. It's similar with journalism.

Milos Cermak,  photo: CTK
"I think Czech journalism is comparable with western journalism. We are still doing our best to be at this sort of western standard...we are not yet there, but we are very close."

In what areas then are Czech journalists lacking?

"The trouble with the Czech media is that we have a very, very small market. This is the problem with any small America you have a big market, you have a quite huge readership and so on and so on.

"I think we still don't have the same standard of professionalism as western journalists, generally. I am from the generation which started to be journalists in 1990. In the 1990s we had just one generation media - all the people were from my generation.

"At the moment I think it is comparable to the western media, but in the '90s we had the youngest editors-in-chief in the world maybe. They were 30, 31, 32 and they were the editors-in-chief of national newspapers.

"We were learning how to do things, how to write articles. We learned a lot about the ethics of journalism - and I think that we are still learning.

"Some things you can learn at university, some things you can learn at school, some things you can learn from other journalists, older journalists. But some things...for example, in journalism you need tradition. We don't have any tradition.

"For good journalism you have to have some old guys in the editor's office, old guys, old reporters who are stinking a little bit, but they know the trade. They know what to do, they know how to write a story and they are fully...attracted to the profession. We don't have anybody like that because we don't have any old journalists.

"I think is this is a very complex question. What we mostly lack is probably tradition. But now it is 17 years, 18 years, [since the fall of communism] so I think in five, 10 years we will be there (laughs)."

Sometimes when particular politicians here come under a lot of scrutiny from the press and they get accused of this, that and the other, they claim that there have been orchestrated campaigns against them - does this really happen?

"I don't think so. I think what Czech politicians are saying is something that politicians all over the world say when they are in trouble. They always feel they are some victims of some campaign...there is a lot of paranoia in the thinking of politicians. I think there is nothing extraordinarily Czech in this.

"The problem is that we follow the same story. The other problem is that Czech newspapers generally have limited budgets. I think sometimes when we have some huge story we might sometimes report it more than would be appropriate.

"This might look like a campaign, but I think it's not the case that journalists from different newspapers have a meeting and say, hey, let's have a campaign and let's destroy this politician."

You say that Czech papers don't have so much money - do they come under pressure from companies here sometimes, through advertising, to report in a certain way about big Czech companies?

"Well, everybody says that. For example yesterday there was a new report about the Press Freedom Index [from Reporters Without Borders] which said the Czech Republic lost some of its press freedom - and they reported that one of the reasons was that there is too strong commercial influence on the Czech media, through advertising maybe and so on.

"But I don't think so. Everybody says that, but I don't have any evidence, I've never experienced...I have been working in the media for 17 years and I didn't experience once a situation in which we for example cancelled a story because of some advertiser, or that we had to do some story because of some advertiser.

"I think it's a sort of myth. This is something which looks so obvious - that the people who are paying money to newspapers want to get something back from them. But my experience is that this is not true."