Intellectuals And Their Position In The Czech Republic Now

The Lecture

On the 14th and 15th October 1995, the fourth Schwarzenberg meeting of Czech intellectuals took place in the West Bohemian monastery of Teplá. Some sixty predominantly Czech intellectuals took part in the meeting. These included the writer Ludvík Vaculík, the former Czech Prime Minister Petr Pithart, Count Karl Schwarzenberg, former Chancellor to President Havel, and Ivan Havel, brother of the Czech president. On Sunday, the meeting was also attended by former playwright and current Speaker of the Czech Parliament, Milan Uhde. The topic of the meeting was dissent, the opposition and the legacy of Czech anti-totalitarian exile.

The first day of the meeting was taken up by the discussion of various aspects of the legacy of the Czech dissident movement from the times before 1989. The second day, Sunday, started with my 35 minute talk analysing the current position and attitudes of intellectuals in the Czech Republic.

I had prepared a fairly critical piece, based on my first-hand experience from the media in the Czech Republic and on conversations with a number of journalists and educational reformers. It was my intention to provoke the audience into asking questions about the direction of social and political life in the Czech Republic. I did not offer any ready-made answers. I wanted to stimulate the people present to start examining certain issues and to begin a common search for solutions.

My thirty-five minute talk unexpectedly produced a passionate debate which lasted for more than an hour and a half and took up the remainder of the conference time. I was strongly criticised by some speakers for my talk, then others stood up and passionately rejected the previous criticism. The debate showed that there was a serious rift between some intellectuals living in the Czech Republic and those Czechs who have had an experience of living in the West. The debate set a mirror to the Czech intellectual community. I hope that the discussion will continue after the piece and the transcript of the subsequent debate are published later this year.

It seems to me that the whole debate casts an interesting light on serious differences between the attitudes of people living in the West and people living in the East - or at least in the Czech Republic.

At the beginning of my talk in Teplá, I mentioned several small American intellectual periodicals, The National Interest, Tikkun, Commentary, The New Republic, which seem to have a strong influence on the ongoing American political debate. Senior American politicians pick up ideas from these periodicals.

In the Czech Republic, I argued, this is not the case. Czech politiciansare often very self-assured. This is because they are isolated from the international debate about important issues of the day, which shows that many things are now in a state of flux. On Saturday 14th October, the Teplá conference discussed the phenomenon of civic society. The discussion took place outwith the international context and without knowledge of current international literature on the development and role of civic society. Why not use the Internet to get in touch with the international community in this debate, if Czech libraries are not up to scratch, I argued.

Public discourse in the Czech Republic has been more or less silenced, I argued. It has been replaced by the simplified language of advertising and clichˇ-like consumerist entertainment. This is because the intellectual "head" of the nation, isolated under communism from the rest of society by the secret police, was after the fall of communism marginalised by the headless body of society, made up by ordinary people. The headless body, as it were, devoured the head.

Communism prevented meaningful intellectual debate by aggressively assaulting and negating language. Communism replaced meaningful language by the empty clichˇs of totalitarian newspeak. This legacy still paralyses Czech society. People, especially politicians, still do not know how to speak clearly, concisely and concretely.

Educational reformers have found out that teachers in schools are often incapable of even writing down on a piece of paper what they want to achieve in their work and what they expect that the educational system should be doing for them to facilitate their work.

Eva Kanturková, the head of the Czech Community of Writers, agrees that the "headless body of society, made up of ordinary people" has devoured the "intellectual head". Kanturkova, who used to be an MP in the Czechoslovak Parliament before the June 1992 elections, argues in her recent book Památník, that after the 1992 elections, aggressive, immoral entrepreneurs entered Czech political life. Decent Czech intellectuals, did not want to fight with them and vacated the political stage for them.

However, I argued, this is not the whole truth. Until very recently, the Czech intellectuals were very wary of criticising the Czech government. They were afraid that by criticising government policy they might endanger democracy, not being aware that without public criticism and politicians' accountability democracy cannot function properly.

Since the Czechs had had a very bad experience with communist ideology, many of them were persuaded by Václav Klaus and his government that there do not exist generally valid ethical principles and that only pragmatic relativism, determined by the laws of the free market rules throughout the world.

I further argued that now, six years after the fall of communism, Czech intellectuals should make a serious effort for their voice to be properly heard. The voice of Czech intellectuals should be clearly distinguished as a steady, independent and easily understandable tone, rising above the current chaos and consumerist confusion. In November 1994, Timothy Garton Ash clashed with Václav Klaus at the international Congress of the Pen Club in Prague in a debate about the role of politicians and intellectuals. Klaus was deeply offended when Ash argued that politicians work with half-truths while it is the role of independent intellectuals to seek the truth and to show where and how politicians are manipulating the public. Ash was right. Just as it was necessary for intellectuals to be independent under communism, the same attitude is important even now. It is essential to stimulate concrete, intelligible and informed public debate about all matters of public interest.

Education and the media are the two most important areas which are of key importance for the healthy functioning of any democracy. The media make it possible for society to undertake ongoing self-analysis, schools help young people to understand new ideas and to form independent opinions about them. Education and the media are an instrument of speech for any nation. In the Czech Republic, they do not function very well.

I then talked at some length about the situation in the Czech media.

In mid October 1995, the Czech government excluded two important articles from the draft media law, due to be submitted to Czech parliament later this year:

Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Czech constitution, but there are no effective provisions in force, ensuring that journalists can write freely. The Czech Republic has a law for the protection of the state. This law is much too loosely formulated and limits the work of Czech journalists. Because of its lack of precision, state bureaucracy is free to define what is in the public interest and what is not. The whole area is a minefield for journalists. Often, when a journalist discovers an infringement of the constitution or of the Czech Bill of Rights, the state bureaucracy disallows publication, invoking the vague formulations of the Law for the protection of the state. There have been several attempts by various Czech state authorities recently to sue investigative journalists. Fourteen Czech journalists were charged for their investigative work because the interest of the Czech state is defined far too vaguely in Czech law.

One of them was Sonja Pechova, a journalist with Czech public service television, who broadcast a programme about corruption among officials of a Czech military recruitment board. She showed that officials of the board freed recruits from military service in return for financial remuneration. The Czech Ministry of Defence initiated criminal proceedings against her for "subverting the authority of the state and slandering a state institution". This neo-communist rhetoric is disturbing. It shows that the state authorities still do not have a proper grasp on the concept of democracy, which includes public accountability and presupposes that the work of state institutions is open to public scrutiny. The charges against Pechova were withdrawn only in September of this year.

Many political figures in the Czech Republic use for their defence an article in the Code of Civil Law, which gives private Czech citizens protection from intrusive journalism. By claiming that a journalist is investigating their private affairs, Czech politicians attempt to prevent them from writing about mistakes they have committed as public figures.

A number of Czech journalists warn that the forthcoming press law, proposed by the Czech government, is paradoxically more constrictive that the press law from the Communist era, promulgated in 1966. The public debate about the proposed press law is confusing, unprofessional and undignified. The law, again, offers only loosely formulated provisions. There are legal deficiencies. Thus, for instance, according to law, government information is to be provided to journalists by "official spokespersons for liaison with the media". But Czech law does not recognize the institution of such media spokespersons.

Most Czech media are proud to follow the government line. This is primarily because many journalists were bound in with the former communist regime. In order to "assuage" their guilt, they started enthusiastically supporting the Czech government. They have adopted a pseudo right-wing ideology, which has many surviving communist features. By not properly understanding how the market economy and democracy works in the West, these journalists are discrediting democracy and pluralist capitalism in the eyes of many Czech citizens. The principle of impartiality, respected by serious journalists in Britain, is infringed many times every day in the Czech Republic.

A new, nation-wide, commercial TV station, NOVA Television, has currently the biggest news providing impact in the Czech Republic. NOVA Television is an aggressive downmarket broadcaster. It now commands more than seventy percent of the Czech viewing audience. In the first six months of 1995, NOVA television recorded profits of 20 million dollars. Larger profits are expected in the second half of 1995. The company owning NOVA, the Central European Media Enterprises, which is registered in Bermuda, intends to plough NOVA's profits into the setting up of similar downmarket commercial television stations in seven other Central and East European countries in the near future. (Recently, CEME has started a commercial TV station in Slovenia.)

Journalists from NOVA television allege that it has been openly stated at its internal editorial meetings that the interests of NOVA television are linked with the interests of the current Czech government coalition and hence NOVA will support the Czech government. The idea of political impartiality seems to have been abandoned by this TV station, which wields a very strong political influence in the Czech Republic.

A change in the law about television advertising is due to be submitted to Czech parliament. Currently, Czech public service television can carry advertising as well as the commercial TV stations. Czech public service television, which is now followed by some 22 percent of the population, has financial problems. The television licence fee, which is set by the government, has not been raised in line with inflation for several years. The current monthly licence fee for public service television is 50 Czech crowns. Even Jan Kasal, head of the Czech parliamentary committee for the media, admits that the monthly fee should be at least 80 - 90 crowns.

The Czech Republic is entering a pre-election period. NOVA television has given Vaclav Klaus, the leader of the main Czech political party, the Civic Democratic Party, a regular five-minute weekly slot. No similar slot is held by the leaders of other political parties. In spite of this, the Czech Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting, which is supposed to monitor the Czech broadcasting scene and to control its excesses, has not acted to stop this blatant infringement of political balance.

When NOVA Television received its broadcasting licence from the Czech Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting, it promised to adhere to thirty-one strict conditions, derived basically from the British television broadcasting code. In this connection, Czech political weekly Respekt wrote in October 1995: "[When applying for the broadcasting licence, the CET 21 consortium (i.e. NOVA TV,)] promised programmes of classical music, educational programmes, consumer programmes, film art, and more than a dozen news and current affairs programmes per day. Everybody knows that NOVA has not fulfilled these promises. Its management argues that the lowbrow diet which NOVA now serves the viewing public, is 'in high demand'. But by not fulfilling the conditions of the broadcasting licence NOVA has broken the law.

'Nothing can be done about this,' says Ms Landova, spokesperson for the Czech Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting. 'Surely you do not suggest that we should take away NOVA's licence. Do you know what that would mean?'"

NOVA Television is aggressively driving broadcasting standards downmarket. A journalist from NOVA television alleges that NOVA's top management tells its journalists they are following an overall, universal international trend, because, "all international television journalism is now adopting the methods of tabloid television". Systematic investigative journalistic work is discouraged on NOVA television, allege people working for it. News coverage must be limited to superficial snippets of what has happened during the last 24 hours. Explicitly erotic or violent "news reports" often lead the main evening news.

The communist regime in former Czechoslovakia carried out a direct, long-term assault on the most fundamental ethical and civilisational values. The negative impact of this assault was cumulative. The strongest and the most destructive effect has been felt in Czech society, in particular since the 1980s. By a rather unfortunate coincidence, NOVA TV has been able to step into the moral and civilisational vacuum, created by the communists, and to reinforce in Czech society the view that there are no moral and civilisational principles of universal validity. Pragmatism and self-interest are supposed to be the only rules, valid in a modern society.

Probing questioning by journalists are not encouraged anywhere in the Czech Republic. It feels as though the ruling post communist Czech politicians have merely retrenched, reinstating some of the habits of the pre-1989 past. One Czech television journalist told me that it was extremely difficult to ask government ministers firm, searching questions at official press conferences. To do so, you immediately attract the label as an "extremist" in the Czech context.

Ministers apply indirect pressure to journalists whom they regard as far too independent. Openly critical journalists are not being invited for television discussions. They are not being invited to informal press conferences with ministers.

When Czech premier Vaclav Klaus attended the annual Conservative conference in Blackpool on 12th October 1995, Ivan Kytka, reporter for Czech public television, asked him on camera why he travelled abroad to foreign conferences while there was a crisis at home: an impending strike of hospital doctors. Klaus answered the question and then, off camera, he said to Kytka: 'Mr. Kytka, stop being provocative. Was it not enough for you when you behaved improperly last week, when on Czech television you ceased being a foreign correspondent and mouthed party political opinions?' Klaus was referring to Kytka's criticism of the fact that the Czech premier did not attend the first Prime Minister's Question Time in Czech parliament and travelled to Britain to meet John Major. Klaus's excuse was that the meeting with Major had been arranged a long time in advance when the programme of Czech parliament had not been known. Kytka found out that this was not the case and said so on Czech television.

I have myself experienced unfriendly reactions from ministers and /or their spokespersons to probing questions or to demands for interviews. Czech minister for Trade and Industry Vladimir Dlouhy last year said to a colleague who was then working for Prague-based Radio Alfa that he hoped I was no longer employed by that station as its correspondent. He did this after I had broadcast a critical programme about the work of one of his ministry's officials.

Czech public service television also frequently displays pro-government bias, although it often finds itself under government pressure these days. Nevertheless, some of its reporters take an openly pro government stance in the television discussions they chair, so that anti-government views are often not given the same space as pro-government argumentation. When a sharp exchange between a social democratic MP and a government minister on the floor of Parliament was recently broadcast on Czech public television, the government minister and one senior MP from tried to influence how the exchange might be carried by the TV station. Recently, allege insiders in Czech TV, there have been several Czech government attempts to influence Czech TV'seditorial independence.

The Czech Service of Radio Free Europe, financed by the American Congress, provided for a long time a relatively high quality journalistic output, thereby serving as a very useful yardstick. Other Czech media were expected to emulate RFE's standards. However, in the spring of 1994, the Czech Service of RFE was detached from the main Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty organisation, set up as an independent entity for one year, with a limited, finite budget and no guarantees of editorial independence. This has had a negative impact on the content of its broadcasts, which are becoming increasingly docile. If funding is found for a merger of the Czech Service of Radio Free Europe with Czech Public Service Radio, the new station's existence will be meaningless if the radio is not given explicit, enforceable guarantees of editorial independence.

Recently, 27 journalists left the daily Lidove noviny because they could no longer write freely. Lidove noviny has become, as commentator Jiri Hanak has phrased it, an "independent pro-government newspaper". Mlada Fronta Dnes, a leading Czech daily, has adopted a semi-tabloid, superficial style, peddling the government line slightly less obviously than papers such as Telegraf or Lidove noviny. There are issues which will not be discussed by any Czech periodical with a larger print run, in a free, critical, analytical and confident manner which is common in serious newspapers in Great Britain.

The novelist and former Charter 77 dissident Eva Kanturkova, head of the Czech Community of Writers, told me: "The only newspaper that would accept my articles now is Rude pravo. But I do not want to write for a communist paper, so I must be silent."

The Czech media do not cooperate with one another in reporting the Czech political scene. Unlike for instance the media in Britain, if a Czech newspaper discovers a scandal, the other media's initial inclination is to disparage or trivialise the scoop. The Czech media do not work together in trying to discover additional information about the matter, like the media in the West. Since the Czech media do not present a united front vis-a-vis the government, they are weak and ineffectual.

Why are there no independent newspapers in the Czech Republic, almost six years after the democratic Revolution? Here is a quote from an analysis by Jiri Hanak, published recently in Kmit magazine, issued by the Prague-based Centre for Independent Journalism, financed from abroad. Jiri Hanak is a well-known Czech political commentator:

First, it is a matter of habit. Most journalists, currently working for Czech newspapers, also worked for them under communism. They are used to communist ways. Under the former regime, they did not need independent thinking, faith in their own judgement or an ability to run risks. Such qualities would have threatened their jobs. These journalists know even now that if they support the 'powers that be', life will be easier. Second, laziness. It is much easier to produce a servile newspaper than a critical newspaper. The Czechs have always regarded as pleasant to bask in the heat radiated by the powerful.

Third, the younger generation in the Czech Republic has fallen prey to ideology. These market oriented young Stalinists have been given a new God. They worship him using a rite from the communist past. These young people see any criticism of the government as an assault on democracy.

Fourth, there exists, in the Czech Republic today, a group of (pseudo)intellectuals, who had collaborated with the communist regime more intensely than was customary. These people have tried to overcome their past by dramatically switching sides. They want to be as right wing as possible, more pro-government than anyone else, more intolerant than anyone else. The influence of these people in many newspapers is strongly felt. Western owners of Czech newspapers, unacquainted in greater detail with the situation in a post-communist country, have often given a free editorial hand to these individuals in the Czech Republic.

Fifth, pragmatic calculation. After the 1992 elections, which was won by the Civic Democratic Party, the Czech newspapers realised that the Civic Democratic Party was likely to rule the country for eight long years. Thus Czech newspapers switched to the side of the government, as ever. Should the Social Democratic opposition win the forthcoming elections, it is highly likely that Czech newspapers will stick to their long tradition of servility. For fifty years, Czech journalists have obediently served the owner of their papers and the powers that be, no matter what they were like and what they demanded.

The problem is, I argued in the Teplá monastery, that Czech intellectuals are used to being passive. Under communism, they were accustomed to people coming after them. But this will never happen again. In the interest of the nation, intellectuals should present their ideas and opinions actively to the public. After all, writers like Karel Capek did this before the war. People like Capek wrote daily columns for the newspapers, trying thereby to improve general cultural and political standards. Contemporary Czech intellectuals do not do this. They have left the media to young uneducated journalistic beginners.

The Czech educational system struggles with great problems. Young Czech people now hardly know the famous Czech literary and cultural tradition. I have encountered a number of young Czechs with secondary education who could not recognise even a quotation from Mácha's Máj or from other Czech classics. Young Czechs memorise lists of names and dates in Czech schools: Literary texts are rarely read and analysed in school.

Czech intellectuals should debate in the media what should be done for the improvement of Czech schools. The intellectuals should initiate a public debate about what should a graduate of a secondary school be like, what it actually means to be an educated, independent-minded adult.

Feedback is necessary. Let us undertake a detailed analysis of what young graduates of secondary schools actually know. If we find deficiencies, let us undertake active steps to correct them.

It is the duty of Czech intellectuals firmly to support fundamental ethical values, summed up by Masaryk's statement, Do not be afraid and do not steal. Masaryk himself was never afraid to involve himself in active politics. At the end of the 19th century he defended the Jew Hilsner, wrongly accused of a ritual murder of a child. He courageously supported the Jew against the whole Czech society and was proved right.

This is exactly what Czech intellectuals should be doing now. They should use the current scandals in the Czech Republic for analysing, in general terms what is truth. Truth surely resides in the discourse seeking the truth. The search for truth would undermine the post communist ideology which is beginning to take root in the Czech Republic.

Czech intellectuals should keep to basic, concrete facts about reality. They should not indulge in esoteric, abstract discussions. It should be the first task of an intellectual to communicate his ideas simply and clearly. Being able to use abstract language is not necessarily a sign of intellectual sophistication.

An intellectual should first and foremost know how to think and talk clearly about complicated matters.

Finally, people should co-ordinate their efforts. If they act in unison, they will achieve much more than if they try to work on their own in the confused, fragmented society, which is being aggressively attacked by consumerist culture. The modern American expression is "networking", the creating of networks of people with similar views, who all work together towards a certain aim. This type of networking worked very well among Czech ˇmigrˇs before the fall of communism. Surely it is necessary to get rid of the fear of planning All planning was abandoned with the fall of communism. But it is impossible to go through life without a long-term strategy. Any small business, any university department in the West knows this.

Czech intellectuals should be trying try to rehabilitate concepts which have been destroyed by communism.

Intellectuals should write about all these things daily and systematically for newspapers with a large print run. If these newspapers refuse to print their articles, Czech intellectuals should say so as a group. One of the most important topics is the cultivation of concrete, intelligent language. Intellectuals should criticise statements which are openly mendacious and have a destructive impact on general ethical standards.

There are many things which need improving in the Czech Republic. It would be a good idea to create a list of priorities. In this sense, the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic has been very wise in working out a stimulating plan, the so called Decade of Spiritual Renewal. Within this decade, each year is devoted to a serious problem of contemporary Czech life. Czech intellectuals should perhaps use the Catholic plan as a source of inspiration for their efforts.

This is an abbreviated English translation of a text, published in Czech in LISTY No. 8/1995