Czech president attacks public television broadcaster, calls for debate over its future

Miloš Zeman, photo: Khalil Baalbaki

Czech head of state Miloš Zeman is known for his controversial statements that keep him in the public eye. And this week he stirred up a strong response after suggesting that public service television broadcaster Czech Television be nationalized because it is, he alleges, a mouthpiece for one political party alone. And the president appears willing to follow up his words with action.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki
President Miloš Zeman made the initial comments in answers on a well known politics news server. He said that instead of being paid for by viewers through annual payments, the public broadcaster should be financed directly by the state. That, he suggested, would solve the current situation where he claimed the public broadcaster was a mouthpiece for just one political party, the centre-right TOP 09. It’s not the first time the head of state has made such comments.

But the president’s spokesman, Jiří Ovčáček made it clear Zeman is willing to go further, saying that changes to the broadcaster’s financing should be debated in parliament and that the president wanted to discuss the whole issue with ANO leader and finance minister Andrej Babiš.

And the ANO leader, who apparently feels slighted by his recent television coverage over the so-called Stork’s Nest affair, is reported to be in favour of direct state payment and control saying Czech Television’s finances are unclear and political bias is sometimes clearly seen.

On the small screen at least Czech Television has played down the latest attack. But in an official statement spokeswoman Alžběta Plívová spelled out the principles of public service broadcasting.

“Public sector broadcasting is in general a pillar on which civic liberties are based. It is a guarantee of independent journalism and that is why in no democratic country in Europe is there a state-administered television as such.”

She added that payments from viewers is regarded by the grouping of European broadcasters, the EBU, as the best way of ensuring political independence for them.

Czech Television headquarters,  photo: Rumczeis,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka also intervened with his own statement saying public television and radio should only serve the public interest and this is guaranteed by the existing method of financing. He added that populistic attacks, which masked attempts to hijack the broadcasters by some political elements or weaken them economically, should be resisted.

The role and status of public broadcasting is a delicate issue in the Czech Republic. Tens of thousands of Czechs took to the streets at the end of 2000 and start of 2001 to protest what were seen as political moves to take over the television broadcaster. Zeman himself backed what was then seen as an attempted political coup in the media, but that time he was on the losing side.

But there are signs that Czech media are now under pressure, both those already financed by the state and by private companies, with the Czech Republic recently sliding sharply down the press freedom ranking drawn up by Journalists Without Frontiers.