Journalists throughout Europe have been sounding an alarm about the trends of increasing conglomeration, censorship and diminishing freedom of the press. Where does the Czech Republic stand in terms of media freedom? How do independent vs. corporate media outlets fare? Is there room for human rights journalism in the current media environment? These are some questions I am seeking to answer, seeing them as relevant to my fellowship with the Dženo Association, which is partly a media organization with a history of magazine publishing, broadcasting and training journalists.
In its 2007 report surveying media freedom in the European Union, the Association of European Journalists found that freedom of the press is relatively unrestrained in the Czech Republic:
The Czech media enjoy a comparatively high level of media freedom and independence, reflected in the relatively mature media scene and the lack of high-profile violations of the media’s ability to report on events in public life. Reporters Sans Frontieres, in its Press Freedom Index for 2006, ranked the Czech Republic in 5th place out of 168 countries assessed.
However, the Czech Republic’s press freedom rating has since plummeted to the 24th place. Also, the report raises several concerns, among them subtle pressure sometimes exerted by business and political interests to influence reporters. Also among the report’s criticisms is the problem that “Czech journalists sometimes fail to demonstrate the independence of mind and professional rigour needed to report adequately on sensitive issues,” and that they “have shown a lack of independence and determination in questioning politicians and their decisions.”
The concerns above are echoed by media expert and Czech journalism professor Jaromír Volek, who writes:
The continuing influence of the state on the public service sector is an. . . issue. This has been de facto “privatized” by the parliamentary parties and used as a megaphone for their own political ambitions; in effect they use the media to shut off individuals not affiliated to a political party from the public debate.
Regarding the rigor needed for reporters to question authority and provide alternative angles, Volek asserts that Czech journalism exhibits “a surprising degree of conformity in approaches, which, in turn, results in the campaign-style promotion of social agendas and collective media interpretations.”
This reality is compounded by the fact that three of the four largest-circulation dailies “pursue a center-right political agenda,” while the vast majority of journalists themselves subscribe to center-right political views and reject the Left. In fact, a study by the media monitoring group Hermes of the most widely read daily, MF Dnes, showed that left-wing political parties were presented less favorably than the right. Mainstream Czech press is thus clearly slanted ideologically, which has an impact on minority rights and social issue coverage. Pertinent to my fellowship is the fact that although a formal survey of the political preferences of the Roma community has not been carried out, the general assumption in and outside the Roma community is that the Roma are overall a left-leaning voter constituency.
The Association of European Journalists shares Volek’s view about the declining journalistic standards, which “tend to encourage passivity and acceptance of the status quo instead of vigilance.” The level of political debate and focus in reporting, says the AEJ analysis, is often “characterised by populism and an excessive focus on personality” and dominated by “dumbed-down” content.
But why this substandard quality of journalism in the Czech Republic? Both Volek and the Institute of Democracy for All, a media monitoring group, have argued that this deficiency is caused by the consolidation of ownership and commercialization, even “tabloidization“of the media.
After the fall of communism in 1989, a rush to privatize all state assets ensued. The Czech media were no exception.
“The Czech Republic,“ writes Milan Šmíd in “Media Ownership and Its Impact on Media Independence and Pluralism.”, a 2004 Peace Institute report, “was the first country in Central and Eastern Europe to award a nation-wide broadcasting license to a private person, and to allocate a complete network of frequencies formerly used by public television to private television. . . (By 1993), there were no state media in the country. Three former state media outlets, i.e. Czech Television, Czech Radio and the Czech Press Agency (CTK) already operated as independent public service companies. . . All other media companies were in private hands.“
Now with more than eighty percent of all state-run enterprises privatized, the Czech Republic, with a population of just over 10 million, has the highest concentration of foreign-owned press in Central and Eastern Europe after Poland.
Although 87 percent of Czech print media outlets are foreign-owned, with German and Swiss companies owning 80 percent of Czech newspapers and magazines, the media monitoring group Institute of Democracy for All asserts that commercialization, homogenization and a trend toward infotainment have much more of an impact on today’s journalism than the nationality of the media owners.
Volek expresses a similar analysis:
Unable to reconcile their former role with the demands of the new technology and economic pressures, journalists have gradually been “de-intellectualized” and reduced to administering the machinery of communication. The “new type of journalist” as a “media employee”, whose existence depends on respecting the dominant logic of infotainment has, for now, won out over the traditional role of the journalist as reporter and interpreter of events.
He continues: “Most of the Czech media have adapted to the economic realities of the market: the media is just one more commodity forced to adapt to market imperatives as it comes ever closer to being little more than infotainment.”
If mainstream journalists are so beholden to economic, and sometimes political pressures that content starts to become uncritical and tabloid-like, the role of independent media is even more important in terms of investigative reporting and of presenting of stories which may not have commercial appeal or mainstream political endorsement, but may be crucial to the understanding and reforming of the current political and social landscape in the Czech Republic. Such is the role media organizations like Romea, a Prague-based Roma news service, and my host organization Dženo which plans to launch an international, multilingual satellite broadcast on Roma issues and culture. The question is always that of funding and funding priorities.
“Media publishers and broadcasters support investigative journalism only exceptionally,” writes media analyst Milan Šmíd in the Peace Institute media study,” not because of its contentious nature, but because it is an expensive, time consuming and costly affair.”
The current economic crisis is creating yet another excuse for those with the purse strings to divest from social services and causes. Perhaps there are still those funders who see the value of independent media and are willing to support the voices of the underrepresented for the long haul. Media freedom and diversity as well as independent and probing journalism are signs of a healthy democracy.
Posted By Tereza Bottman
Posted Jul 12th, 2010