The State of Journalism in the Czech Republic

By Petr Vizina

There is hardly a more telling moment to epitomise the state of journalism in the Czech Republic than a short TV clip from a recent meeting of two presidents: Miloš Zeman, Czech head of state and his Russian counterpart - Vladimir Putin. “And here are more journalists?” asked Mr. Zeman in Russian at the press conference. "There are too many journalists. They should be liquidated.“

Obviously, this was just a joke and being too serious about one of the many remarks of our president gives the impression that the listener lacks a sense of humour. But really - is it a matter of appreciating a joke? Obviously, a president might be humorous but his words and actions, if only meant in jest, carry highly symbolic meaning and power. However, this is by no means a uniquely Czech phenomenon. There is no need to explain this to those, who live in a country where the president calls the mainstream media “the fake news”. There seems to be a deeper issue with the media in recent years and the Czech Republic is clearly no exception. With the rise of the “alternative media”, the old game of reporting news via traditional media outlets has changed. But what exactly has changed?

Apparently many share the view of the mainstream media as the “fake news” and the news outlets are under suspicion that they are interested mainly in the maintaining status quo and influence. The same view comes through very likely Kremlin-based or financed media in the Czech Republic. You do not have to trust us. Just get the bigger picture. And do not trust anyone. Everybody is biased and has an agenda. Nobody is to be trusted. The truth is out there,“ proclaims the ever agnostic motto of the day with the rise of propaganda after Russia took Crimea by force.

what we are seeing and experiencing is a crisis of common consensus

It seems that major changes have not come with the advancement of technologies making it possible for almost anyone cheaply and easily spread the news - real and fake alike. But catering to previously dissident voices and opinions in  society definitely cannot be wrong, can it? So what is the real and profound change we have been going through with society and media recently?

In my opinion, what we are seeing and experiencing is a crisis of common consensus, of common agreement of what a society perceives/ means by truth, reality and how reality can be grasped, depicted, explained (let’s call this aspect gnoseological crisis). Also the crisis of media literacy, a state in which is very hard to understand the news because it is almost impossible to understand the context and reasoning behind publishing a report, article or a commentary (let’s call it hermeneutical crisis). Overall, that means we are seeing and experiencing something that could be called a crisis of trust and faith.

If we see, however jokingly, a group of professionals as if they are enemies as the Czech president seems to view journalists, it only adds insult to injury.

However worrying this prospect of common distrust in society might be, I still view the word crisis (κρίσις) as a chance to better our judgement rather than imminent catastrophe and doom. On the contrary, if the crisis is perceived as a chance to negotiate, evaluate and listen. As society we might find the experience valuable.

So, shall the Czech media be set free again and thrive by this huge national therapy of expressing doubts and listening to the whole society, perhaps at sports stadiums that are able to hold hundred of thousands? Let’s not be naive. It seems ideal but it is very unlikely to happen for one simple reason. There is a seemingly cynical proverb in Czech: „O peníze jde až v první řadě“ (Money is only first when it comes to priorities).

2017 is the eighth year I have been working for Czech Television, the national public service television network which includes a successful 24/7 news channel ČT24. The annual budget for this channel only is approximately 300 milion Czech crowns ($1.4m). I am unable to compare the budget with another media outlet of this size and impact in our country because there is none. The investment would not pay off for a private company. The uniqueness of ČT24 does not mean that the news channel can not be criticised or its work held up for close public scrutiny and reflection. However, it means that such a public achievement of funding and operating such a channel should be preserved and made to perform with the greatest benefit of society in mind.

Andrej Babiš – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Andrej Babiš – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Even though there is no private interest in developing and running a news TV channel, there is still a desire to run media according to private interests as recently proven by Andrej Babiš, the Slovak–born billionaire who became a Czech media mogul in 2013, buying one of the most influential media houses in the country. Practically the sole, private owner of Mlada Fronta Dnes (still the country’s most popular broadsheet), Babiš gives the journalistic profession unwanted lectures on self-censorship of their reporters and editors respectively.

What could be the contribution of women and men of faith to the media in the Czech Republic and elsewhere? The question “What holds the Czech journalism back and what would set it free?” takes an interesting turn here. First and foremost, hope is the quality urgently needed, hope that is expressed in good will. People of faith know that a disagreement does not make a person an enemy, even though we differ in opinion. This is easy to say, though difficult to practise. We share the attitude of reverence or solemnity of life. We believe that truth matters, that it is important to be faithful to facts, to be accurate. On the other hand, we are no strangers to thinking in paradoxes,  knowing that “the truth” is not out there but still is, philosophically, in the full meaning of the term, beyond our grasp and that what is true appears gradually in conversation, a dialogue.

Furthermore, people of faith could or, perhaps, should be leaders in standing up to fear. There is so much in the current propaganda that appeals to our inner angst and distress. People of faith could also be leaders in being charitable and generous, ignoring the rhetoric of envy and neoliberal dogma of scarcity. Public spending and effective public service are the keys to effective media public service. And, finally, people of faith should not be surprised if they see all the qualities that have been mentioned - tolerance, openness, accuracy, solemnity, generosity and faithfulness -  in unbelievers. After all, all the great religions claim man is the image of God. Then, finally, with our president, Mr. Zeman, we can ponder the most important question: Does God hate journalists?