New York Times Prague-based correspondent Dan Bilefsky on covering Eastern Europe

Dan Bilefsky

In the early 1990s, Prague was in the spotlight of international media with scores of foreign correspondents reporting on developments in free Czechoslovakia. Since then, the Czech Republic has become a member of the EU and NATO, and has lost much of its attraction for foreign journalists. One of the few foreign correspondents based in Prague today is Dan Bilefsky, who covers the region of central and Eastern Europe for the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. When we met, I asked Dan Bilefsky why he was based in Prague.

Dan Bilefsky
“You know, recently, I was interviewing the former president of Poland, and he asked me the same question, somewhat disgruntled by the fact that I’d chosen Prague over Warsaw. I think there are many reasons.

One of the first things that attract any foreign correspondent is the sheer beauty of the place; it’s a great place to be based and it’s also very central, whether there’s an economic crisis in Greece or a terrorist attack somewhere else, you can hop on the next plane if you’re based in Prague. Also, 20 years after the Velvet Revolution, Prague is a fascinating place to be to grapple with the ghosts of communism.”

But how do see the place news-wise? After the Czech Republic joined NATO and the EU, there was a running joke that we would become as boring as Belgium. As a former Brussels-based correspondent, would you say that's true?

“The first thing I would say in Belgium’s defence is that Brussels suffers from an unfair reputation of being boring and grey when in fact it’s the epicentre of European politics. If you look at what’s happening now with the Catholic Church scandals, it’s not such a boring place and you can have a pretty good moules et frites as well.

“But I would not say that Prague has become as boring as Brussels – look at the past year. You had US President Barack Obama twice come here in less than a year; who could have predicted that? The Czechs had the EU presidency – which fell mid way through – and, of course, you have the Czech Republic grappling with its own past – communism, 40 years under a different regime… This is not boring.

Is it difficult though to get stories from the Czech Republic and other small countries in the region onto the front page, so to speak?

“It is difficult. I think even getting Western European stories onto the front page can be difficult at the New York Times. I think for people sitting in New York, looking over Wall Street and Manhattan, Prague is a very far away place. So the trick is to see things through the prism of global politics so that a housewife in Boise, Idaho or a Fortune 15 executive in Taiwan can relate to the story. There is certainly a premium on finding very compelling tales that will resonate with the global audience. And then of course the challenge is to try and globalize stories.

“At the same time, vis-à-vis the Obama visit this year, there was a big discussion on arms control and East-West relations – these are global issues, missile defence etc. In this sense, I would not call this place by any means backwater.”¨

Seen from the US, the whole region must look very homogenous. There are various countries that were once one big country, then they split, the history is really complicated and so are the relations between them. How do you make your readers see the differences and make them aware that there is, for instance, a country called Slovakia which is different from Czechoslovakia?

“This week, there is an interesting case in point when this killer went on a murderous rampage in Bratislava. Part of my challenge with that story was to try and explain why that killing was particularly affecting in a country like Slovakia – a small, predominantly Catholic country trying to cope with immigration issues as it tries to forge a new national identity 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was a typical terrible murder story but my challenge was to try and find something uniquely Slovak about it.

Photo: Wikipedia
“At the same time, it can be deeply frustrating that editors and people in the global audience tend to clamp countries together. We saw this very emphatically with the global financial crisis in 2008 when people had a hard time differentiating between Ukraine and the Czech Republic. Ukraine was in economic dire straits with a terrible banking sector and a lack of capital, the Czech Republic was relatively doing well. But the market reacted to the region as one cohesive glob. So at that time, I tried very hard to distinguish between these counties and remind Americans that Texas and New York are very different places.”

Much of the region's coverage seems to focus on some of the Eastern European clichés – communism, sex and victimized Roma. Do you this is changing or will this persist for a while?

“First of all, I don’t think there is anything wrong with writing about sex. It always is of interest and it’s a global subject that resonates with everybody. But seriously, I don’t think communism in the Czech Republic is a cliché. This country experienced communism for 40 years and that experience, the post-1968 ‘normalization’ period and the post-1989 westernization period – this affects everything in this country from the service you get in a corner store to the political culture in Parliament, so I wouldn’t say that’s a cliché.

“On the issue of Roma – when you look at what’s happening in France with the repatriation of Roma to Romania – it’s still a contemporary issue that doesn’t just apply to Roma. It applies to integration of immigrants, so I wouldn’t call these clichés.

Illustrative photo
“At the same time, I think it’s a tribute to the resilience of Czechs 20 years after the Velvet Revolution that their modern-day preoccupations look much more like Western Europe than in the past. This means I’ve looked into issues like why so many women get plastic surgeries and so on. So on the one hand, I think these themes are very resonant, on the other hand I think Czechs are becoming just like any other Western European country, and this is a very healthy thing.”

Talking about political culture: Czech President Václav Klaus is notorious for his disdain for foreign journalists. How does his attitude compare to other leaders you have talked to?

“The eminent historian Timothy Garton Ash once said that Václav Klaus was the rudest man he ever met. I would say that Václav Klaus is possibly the rudest man I have never met. Shortly after I came to this country, I requested an interview with the eminent President Klaus, and he politely declined, and he’s been declining ever since. Meanwhile, every other head of state and prime minister in the region has engaged with me, has invited me to see him or her to represent their country. Is that rudeness? I don’t know. Consciously trying to avoid foreign journalists is perhaps not the best way to represent your country. But I certainly understand that Mr Klaus is obsessed and focused on domestic Czech politics and domestic Czech public opinion. He is a very clever man and I have a lot of respect for him on many levels. But the lack of engagement - I’m not sure it serves the best interest of the country.”

Compared to Western Europe, do you think that politicians and other officials are more accessible in this region, with the notable exception of the Czech president?

Václav Klaus
“I would say that officials are generally quite accessible in the Czech Republic and this region. At the end of the day, democracy is a 20-year-old phenomenon in this country, although it predates with the first Czechoslovak Republic. I think people are quite open; they are perhaps not as cynical as in other countries, although the post-1968 generation is certainly cynical in many respects. But I think that people are generally accessible.”

Twenty years ago, you would have been one of many foreign correspondents based in Prague, now you are one of few. Do you think that the profession of foreign correspondent is going to disappear in the changing media environment?

“I don’t think it’s going to be disappearing any time too soon, but I do think we are an endangered species. There is a huge premium now in newspapers to try and enter the new media age. Journalists need to be adapted to using the internet; we need to be adapted to using video cameras. The whole canvass of foreign correspondents’ work has changed.

“That said, I still believe strongly that with the proliferation of media, with the cacophony of news from radio, TV and tabloids, there is still and there always will be the need for foreign correspondents to analyze, deconstruct and put things in a larger perspective. But we have to change the way we do our business.”