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Te Changing Face of Czech Media
Petruška Šustrová
I never wanted to become a journalist. Like most other girls, when I was small
I wanted to be a princess – or better still a fairy – and when I learnt to tell the
world of stories and the real world apart, I imagined being an editor, reading and
proof-reading beautiful books and helping them to see the light of day. Just like
my mother did. I never really got to know newspapers until I was an adult. They
were not around at home or at my grandmother’s and all the adults in our family
read them at work. As for radio, when we were small we used to listen to the
children’s story on Sundays after lunch (my mother made some adaptations for
radio and naturally she wanted to hear how her work would sound) or to the
book readings on Saturday evenings. I still remember the sound of the gong that
came between each part of Jack London’s Call of the Wild and to this day I think
it might not be a bad idea to visit Alaska.
That was back in the 1950s and 1960s. Then 1968 came along and journalists
became stars overnight. They wrote on subjects that, until then, I had only heard
mentioned through careful allusion, such as disputes within the party leadership
and about a new, more liberal, direction espoused by the more progressive
faction of the Communists. The media was flooded by the recollections of former
political prisoners and there was even heretic talk of establishing new political
parties. But even then I hardly read the newspapers – I was a student at the
Philosophical Faculty in Prague and debates in the student environment went
much further than those than in the newspapers and much more information
was available by word of mouth.
Then August 21, 1968 came along and overnight Czechoslovakia was occupied
by the five countries of the Warsaw Pact. The people flooded the streets, plastered
them with posters and fliers, and the media, especially the radio, stood at the
head of the protests. It only took a week, however, before the Czechoslovak
Communist leadership and the Soviet leadership signed the Agreement on the
Temporary Presence of Soviet Armies on Czechoslovak Territory. The occupation
was deemed “brotherly help”, although never requested and of the five armies,
only the Soviet remained. Journalists began to change. My favourite journalists –
the most radical ones – gradually disappeared from the pages of newspapers, the
radio and television.
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Journalists – Lackeys of the Communist Regime
I ended up in prison for two years for “subverting the republic”. While in detention
during the investigation, I carefully studied the party newspaper Rudé Právo from
cover to cover. I felt that I was reading about some other country than the one I had
lived in for twenty years, on some completely diferent, unknown continent. Back then
I came to the conclusion that journalists were in fact clowns, attending meetings with
party secretaries completely unknown to me, writing whatever they were told. ‘Why
don’t the party ofcials just write it themselves?’ I wondered. I concluded that they
simply did not know how to write and that a journalist is someone who, unlike a party
secretary, can string a few words together to make a sentence and paragraph, but who
needs someone to tell him what to write so that the article makes sense. And I still
think that in the 1970s and 1980s my opinion was not far from the truth.
I could only dream of studying again – I was expelled from the faculty in 1970 afer I had
been in prison for more than two months. Te faculty took the “politically correct” course
of action – I was not expelled because I had been charged with “subverting the republic” by
the State Security Service (StB) but because I had not passed the prescribed exams. Tat was
hardly possible since I was in Ruzyně Prison. Becoming a professional journalist was out of
the question for me. On the one hand, I had nothing but contempt for the profession, and
on the other I really did not have the slightest chance that someone would employ me in a
newspaper as a released prisoner in Czechoslovakia under “normalisation”. I was glad that
afer my release, at least the post ofce employed me once again for a few years.
I came into contact with “underground publications” for the frst time not long afer
I had been released from prison in 1972. My husband at the time worked in a printing
works and in the evenings at home he bound the books of the underground edition Petlice,
consisting of typewritten copies made using carbon paper. Tey were the result of the
resistance of a group of Czech writers who had been blacklisted for their political views,
especially because they had expressed disagreement with the occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Teir existing works had been taken of the shelves and there was not the slightest hope
that they could ofcially publish a new book, or any other text for that matter. For them,
the doors of the ofces of newspapers and magazines were tightly sealed. Tey decided,
however, that they would not allow themselves to be silenced. Terefore, they made twelve
typewritten copies of each book and then personally took them round to their readers –
well, the braver ones anyway, since merely having samizdat at home could be a reason for
interrogations by the StB.
Samizdat
Gradually, samizdat magazines became established, too. I typed them out industriously.
Te samizdat distribution network broadened rapidly and so the frst twelve copies
were ofen copied further before they even reached their readers. Te number of titles
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was also increasing. Information on Charter 77 (Informace o Chartě 77) most closely
resembled a newspaper, containing Charter 77 documents and communications of the
Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted (Výbor na obranu nespravedlivě
stíhaných – VONS), but also brief news items concerning the dissident community and
ofen a feuilleton on the back page. Kritický sborník (Te Critical Review), reviewing
samizdat and exile literature, was established at the start of the 1980s; Vokno (Te
Window) was a magazine concerned with underground youth culture; and Informace
o církvi (Information on the Church) was also published (although the subject was not
entirely taboo in ofcial publications, it was almost impossible to fnd out what was
really happening). In reality, there were dozens of samizdat publications with one for
every taste.
However, not even the food of samizdat magazines changed my view of journalists.
Tese periodicals were not newspapers, afer all – their publication was ofen much
delayed as using typewriters to make copies was a little slow. Te frst underground
issues of Lidové noviny (People’s Daily) were produced at the end of the 1980s, although
even that was really a magazine, coming out once a month. Te typewriter was almost
abandoned as a technology for producing Lidové noviny. Although the original articles
were written on typewriters, ofen with slightly diferent character types, they were then
scaled-down and pasted together on a page, as in a normal newspaper. Photographs
were then added and the fnal product was reproduced using a photocopy machine.
Lidové noviny had a fairly large circulation – by the end of the 1980s there were quite
large numbers of people brave enough to make a few elicit copies at work which then
made their way to new readers. Te magazine Střední Evropa (Central Europe) was
also reproduced on a photocopier. I was a member of the editing board and wrote the
original on a typewriter. Samizdat technology was improving – several hundred copies
of the thick magazine Revolver Revue, part socio-political, but mostly cultural, were
printed using a stencil printer. Te Czechoslovak dissident movement also received its
frst computers via secret channels from the West.
Te era of burgeoning samizdat publications was cut short by the Velvet Revolution
in 1989. From November 20, I worked in the Independent Press Centre which
published the daily Informační bulletin (Information Bulletin), that grew in size day by
day and sometimes even came out twice in one day. Informační bulletin combined the
editors of the samizdat publication Revolver Revue and a samizdat political magazine
with the somewhat eccentric name Sport where I had also worked (of course it covered
all subjects except for sport). It was the only printed medium providing uncensored
information that people could read during the frst days afer the brutal suppression of
the student demonstration on November 17. Te Communist regime was crumbling. At
the end of November 1989, the media changed from one day to the next. Afer about
two weeks, the small Informační bulletin with its improvised printing presses could
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hardly compete with the major newspapers, radio and television. At the start of 1990,
it became the weekly Respekt and this reputable magazine covering political and social
issues is still in print today.
Afer the Collapse of Communism
Afer the fall of Communism, literally hundreds of new magazines and newspapers
sprang up. Some had a very short lifetime, because their founders overestimated their
creativity and fnances, but some found enough readers and an editorial board and
management good enough to hold on to a segment of the market. From autumn 1993,
I worked in one such new newspaper and in my opinion its fortunes were to some
extent typical of the “life” of the new media. Te original title was Občanský deník
(Civic Daily) and it was initially the paper of the Civic Forum (Občanské forum – OF),
the broad people’s front movement that had formed during the frst few days of the
November revolution as the opposition to the Communist Party and the leadership
of the state at the time. Václav Havel was at the head of the Civic Forum during the
frst few weeks, but at the very end of 1989 he was elected Czechoslovak President.
Občanský deník sufered partly as a result of its unclear political position, as, in fact, did
the Civic Forum. It was supposed to be an independent paper, though almost all newly
emerging media wore the label “independent”, but at the same time it was supposed to
support the politics of Civic Forum, making it to some extent a party-political paper.
It should be noted that many diferent political leanings could ft under the “umbrella”
of the Civic Forum at that time – its candidates included representatives of the liberal
rightwing Civic Democratic Alliance (Občanská demokratická aliance – ODA) as well
as the lef-wingers who later formed the Social Democratic Club (Klub sociálních
demokratů). Tis political ambiguity was not a Czechoslovak speciality. Rather, the
people’s fronts that took over power from the Communists in other countries of the
“socialist camp”, countries in Eastern and Central Europe that had ended up within the
Soviet sphere of infuence, were similar.
Občanský deník was established in a similar way to many other newspapers
at the time, on the basis of political agreements. In spring 1990, the Civic Forum’s
Coordination Centre took over the premises and equipment of the daily Svoboda, the
newspaper of the Communist Party Committee for Central Bohemia. Te last issue
of Svoboda was published on April 30 and the frst issue of Občanský deník came out
on May 2. It was typical of the time that the publishing rights for the daily were not
transferred to the Charter 77 Foundation until May 8, at a time when the paper had
already been on sale for several days. Te daily had an initial print-run of 150,000
issues, but gradually interest declined. In July 1991, the original publisher sold the
paper to the company Caster and in October 1991 it was bought with the publishing
rights by the company Cesro.
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Český deník (Te Czech Daily)
Josef Kudláček, the owner of Cesro limited liability company, is to some extent a typical
fgure of the Czech public scene. Born on August 21, 1951, he was exactly 17 years-old
on the day the occupation of Czechoslovakia began. He did an apprenticeship in
printing and graphics and in 1980 he emigrated from Czechoslovakia. In 1983, he
founded a very successful free advertising magazine called Annonce in the Federal
Republic of Germany, where he took refuge afer emigrating. In 1990, he returned to
Czechoslovakia that was no longer under Communist control and began publishing
Annonce in Czech, with the same level of success. Kudláček also wanted to have
political infuence on developments in the Czech Republic and that’s why he bought
Občanský deník in October 1991. By then, its print-run was down to 90 000.
He renamed the paper Český deník (Czech Daily), dismissed the editor-in-chief,
as well as most of the editorial staf, and began to run the paper as he wished. For
about two years the publisher and the new editorial staf got along fne. Te paper
had rightwing leanings, calling for thorough economic reforms and purging public
life of Communists, as well as support for the Civic Democratic Party (Občanská
demokratická strana – ODS), whose chairman and later President wrote a regular
column for the paper, and was severely critical of Václav Havel for his conciliatory
attitude towards former Communists. At the end of 1993, however, the publisher
began to disagree with the policies of ODS headed by Václav Klaus, who was Prime
Minister of the Czech Government at the time, and decided to change the political
orientation of the paper, no longer supporting Klaus or his party. Te editorial staf
disagreed, however, and the result was an “editorial shake-up”. Te chief editor and
most of the editorial staf handed in their notice. Josef Kudláček had to start building
the paper again from scratch.
At this point I joined Český deník. Kudláček and his new editor-in-chief originally
ofered me the position of head of foreign afairs, but before I had made my decision
to leave the monthly Střední Evropa, the position had already been taken. I ended up
joining the domestic politics section and within a few weeks I was its head. Looking
back on my work at Český deník, I must say that it was the most liberating time of
my life as a journalist. Te publisher focused on commentaries, opinion columns
and readers’ letters, political journalism was somewhat side-lined and so I and my
colleagues had an entirely free hand. Tere was a lot of free space in the paper – two,
sometimes three, pages a day (depending on the number of adverts). Terefore, besides
original reporting, the political section also published a lot of translations, mainly
from Anglo-Saxon publications. Mostly we reprinted articles about post-Communist
transformation, but we also tried to print articles covering various problematic issues
afecting post-Communist countries – something that did not appear in the Czech
papers very ofen.
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Český deník was losing readers, however. Kudláček devoted a signifcant part of
the paper to promoting the small rightwing party called the Democratic Union
(Demokratická unie) which he also supported fnancially using profts from the sale
of Annonce. Since he had begun publishing it in other post-Communist countries, he
could aford to do so. However, he could not aford to publish a daily that was losing
readers and advertisers and so at the beginning of 1995, Český deník became Český
týdeník (Czech Weekly) which, somewhat unusually, was published twice a week. Te
continued loss of interest in the paper is an exemplary case showing the lack of interest
in the Czech Republic for papers that overdo it with propaganda. Many interesting
articles came out in the paper, but articles requiring deeper concentration were not
sufciently balanced by pieces that could be read on the tram without too much efort.
A magazine published twice weekly cannot provide readers with a sufcient number
of news items, cannot give daily updates concerning sport events and also falls behind
the dailies in terms of providing commentary.
However, in my opinion, most of its original readers were perturbed by the
constant promotion of the Democratic Union, which failed to reach the 5 percent
threshold in the June 1996 general election and its candidates did not make it into
parliament. Bitterly disappointed, Kudláček stopped publishing Český týdeník – the
last issue came out on October 1, 1997. To Kudláček’s credit, a large number of the
people who today rank among the most important professional journalists at some
point worked for Český deník or Český týdeník. As a matter of principle, Kudláček did
not employ people that had worked in newspapers under Communism. He claimed
that they had a “broken spine” and were not up to the job in the new circumstances.
On the other hand, he employed a lot of people with no previous experience of
journalism. Naturally, for many of them it was not the right job but many also became
good journalists.
A Long Road
However, even those new to the profession were burdened by certain aspects of the
Communist past. Between 1994 and 1997, few articles critical of the government were
published (except for some in the lefwing Právo and some smaller periodicals). Most
journalists backed economic and social reforms and thus they did not consider it right
to criticise the government of the Civic Democratic Party because they regarded it as
the legitimate driving force of the reforms. Terefore, they quite deliberately kept quiet
about certain transgressions on the part of ODS politicians in an efort to help the
transformation of Czech society and the nation.
Te road to objective journalism is long and the media cannot change from one
day to the next, even if those in charge changed their political orientation. Even in the
Czech Republic, there are still many media outlets and journalists with leanings to
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one political party or another. Tis is not so much of a problem in the case of political
commentary, where the journalist is expected to give his/her opinion, but it is of more
concern in news reporting where skilful manipulation gives less exposure to a critical
opinion on a “favourite” fgure of the paper. Political manipulation of an analysis
which should provide the reader with an impartial breakdown of a phenomenon or
issue is of grave concern. Not unusually, the impression that such an analysis will give
– ie. who it will favour – is discussed at a meeting of the editors. Sometimes the editors
of a media outlet, whether printed or electronic, even force an author to change the
conclusions of a piece. To be fair, however, most articles and reports are not afected by
this questionable approach.
Petruška Šustrová studied Czech Language and History at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles
University. In December 1969, she was imprisoned for two years for “subverting the republic”. In
December 1976 she signed Charter 77; in 1985 she was one of its three spokespersons. From 1979,
she was a member of the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted (Výbor na obranu
nespravedlivě stíhaných – VONS). She worked on various samizdat magazines and, was a member
of the editorial board of Střední Evropa (Central Europe) magazine. Immediately afer November 17,
1989, she worked in the Independent News Centre (Nezávislé tiskové středisko) and later in the
weekly Respekt. Between May 1990 and January 1992, she was an advisor to the deputy interior
minister and later deputy interior minister of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. Since 1992,
she has been working as a journalist and translator from English, Russian and Polish.

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