TOL's Jeremy Druker - Czech Republic still lacks real "paper of record"

Jeremy Druker

My guest on this week's One on One is Jeremy Druker, executive director of the media development organisation Transitions Online (TOL). The organisation has two roles - it publishes a high-quality Internet magazine covering 29 former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union. It also provides extensive media training for journalists from those post-communist countries.

Jeremy Druker
Jeremy, what brought you to Prague?

"I was one of the many Americans interested in Central and Eastern Europe, right around the early 90s. Specifically I was interested in the transformation of the press, from a communist press to a democratic press. I'd heard some things about that, and then like everyone else got caught up in interest in this region in the early 90s."

It often strikes me that treating this former communist region as one region is becoming less and less valid, that the Czech Republic, for example, should no longer be dumped in the same basket as countries further east just because it was a former communist country. Do you agree with that?

"I would agree. We hear that a lot. I hear a lot of people saying - well now these countries are in the EU, shouldn't you stop covering them? My answer is always - we should keep covering them, because in many ways they've become boring countries for the rest of the media, so there's actually very little you can find to say about them. It's just the ways we think about them, or the narrative stories we tell, have changed. So it's very old now to think about this transformation from communism in central Europe, but it's now more of a business story, it's more about creating standards that are closer to western Europe and North America. So there are still a lot of interesting stories, it's just we have to think about them in a completely different way, and make sure these countries are not grouped too closely with the countries that are farther behind."

Looking at articles on the front page on your website, there's one on air safety in Russia, one about the referendum in Transdniester, one about a journalist dying in prison in Turkmenistan. Very different stories - how do you choose them?

"We're trying to come up with a mix. So you would not come to TOL for breaking news. It's more about deeper analysis. We hopefully take a step back and provide a different perspective. So I think we're really trying to pick issues where we have something different to say. A lot of what we do is using local analysts, and local reporters. But it is difficult covering so many countries, and not with a budget where we can cover every one of those countries every day. So in the next issue we're planning something on what's happening in Hungary. So that's an issue we're getting a Hungarian journalist to write about. We're asking him not to provide a play-by-play account of the daily events, but to take a step back and put into context why in a place like Hungary people are out there torching the television building."

It's often said that the political pressure on the media in this part of the world has disappeared, but it's been replaced by commercial pressure from advertisers. In the Czech context, how much pressure are newspapers like Mlada Fronta Dnes or Lidove Noviny under from the commercial sector?

"Mostly what I hear is anecdotal, and I think it's a mix of the two. You never really have evidence of the political interference, you just hear about it second hand. So it's really hard to know, because no-one comes forward and says - well, this politician called me and wanted this article pushed under the carpet, or something like that. It's more anecdotal of some journalist getting fired and people reading political pressure into that. As you know, one of the most political programmes on Czech Television was cancelled right before the elections. It seemed too coincidental."

That was Bez obalu, wasn't it?

"Right. And it seemed too coincidental at the time. The timing just seemed suspicious. Commercial interference - you hear that as well. Less I think in companies being covered more favourably, which you see a lot in the Russian media, you see these paid articles, everyone knows they exist. That happened a lot here back in the 1990s from what I understand. I think that probably doesn't happen as much any more. It's more commercial interests somehow making the media more tabloidish or whatever the term is, they're going more downmarket. When you see a paper like Mlada Fronta Dnes, which should really be the country's paper of record, or one of them, having special supplements on reality shows, to me that says that there's something wrong about the media, and about commercial interests dominating the editorial agenda."

And it's obviously not just Mlada Fronta Dnes, many of the other papers have the same supplements.

"Exactly, once one paper does it, the others do it, and I think that still surprises me. That the papers think that they have to cover [things like reality shows] or they would lose a lot of their readers. What that tells me is that they still believe more of their readership is interested in these issues than the potential readership of having a real paper of record that everyone would have to buy every day."

The role of NGOs such as yourselves is not always welcome of course. President Klaus, for example, spoke out very strongly against NGOs meddling in foreign countries' affairs. What do you make of such criticism?

Vaclav Klaus
"The great problem which Klaus probably doesn't quite understand is that if NGOs from outside the country doesn't do it then no-one is going to do it in some of these countries because the local NGO climate is so bad, in countries like Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan etc. So I think there are ways that some NGOs have of operating that tend to exaggerate or highlight this interference in so-called state sovereignty. Mistakes have been made. I think you saw that in some of the so-called revolutions that happened across the region where the U.S. was accused of involvement in funding NGOs that fomented revolution and all that. There are ways. We try not to call a lot of publicity to what we're doing in some of these countries that are more repressive, because it just doesn't make sense. It puts the journalists who participate in our courses at risk as well."

Do you think Jeremy that journalism is still a vibrant, exciting profession to be in?

"I think it really depends on where a journalist is from. We train so many people, I hope they are still interested in staying in the profession, because that is always a worry among us and also the donors that the people we train will end up going into PR. That's always a big threat. Because what happens is, a lot of the young journalist that we train, they learn new ways, new methods, but when they go back, the editors - the gatekeepers - are still from the old school. So they have a problem, and I think then they get discouraged about being journalists. On the other hand, there are new publications sprouting up all the time in these countries, Internet publications, various opportunities for people who are young and ambitious and who are then able to do these great investigative stories beyond the nightly news that their older colleagues would really dream of doing in the West. And then in some of the new EU member states, those journalists have graduated away from learning standard journalism skills and are learning about the EU, about globalisation, about financial reporting. And I think they see their horizons as much more optimistic and more hopeful. So it's hard to say. In the countries farther east, it gets pretty depressing and even dangerous to be a journalist. But there are a lot more exciting opportunities. So it's hard to say. Somewhere in the middle, overall, for the region."