The Czech government's media policy is criticized at a Prague international conference.

On Thursday Prague hosted an international conference on the relationship between the media and politicians, just as debate is raging over the Czech government's uneasy relationship with the fourth estate. Recently there has been a string of conflicts between the government and the press, culminating in Prime Minister Zeman's recent promise that the entire cabinet would take the political weekly Respekt to court over an article accusing the government of corruption. So the conference was perfectly timed. David Vaughan was there.

The list of panelists was impressive, including a number of well-known international journalists and media specialists. All listened with close interest to the Deputy Prime Minister, Pavel Rychetsky, who as one of the first speakers defended the government's media policy. Mr Rychetsky reiterated the Czech government's view that a degree of "parliamentary control" over the media was essential. The new media law, which was passed amidst much debate earlier this year, was there to offer guarantees that extremism, racism and xenophobia would not be given a free rein, he said. The deputy prime minister added that journalists had a duty to write responsibly. "The media are a tool for the public and should be controlled by the public," he argued.

The Deputy Prime Minister's speech was not well received. The German journalist Hans-Ulrich Joerges, editor-in-chief of the political weekly Die Woche, warned that what Mr Rychetsky described as "public control" in practice meant "state control". Special legislation on the media such has been put through by the Czech government, was seriously misguided.

"There is no need for special laws against the media. The media are part of the general law system and that's it."

Mr Joerges was just as outspoken in rejecting the principle that journalists have an obligation to report objectively on political stories.

"The media have just one obligation - to serve their readers but not the political parties or the government."

And he added that journalists should be the opinion formers of society, and not spend their time trying to be neutral. His views were fully embraced by other speakers, including - interestingly enough - one politician, the British Conservative MP, David Curry, who said that, however noble the motivation for media regulation may be, it will nearly always prove counter-productive.

"It doesn't work, and therefore the alternative is a press which is a business, which may well be controlled by large groups or powerful individuals, and it may be a press which has got its own ideas, its own agenda, which is biased, which is occasionally unreasonable. But you've got to say to yourself, is there something which would be better than that or would the alternative actually be more dangerous. And my thesis is that at the end of the day, politicians learn to live with the media and to use the media, and attempts to intervene in it are nearly always counterproductive for the politicians themselves."

Debate at the conference was passionate, a sign of the fascinating transition that the Czech media are going through. The Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Rychetsky, was visibly surprised by the force of passion that his speech unleashed.