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Teething pains of a free press
LONDON, England (CNN) -- The Czech state TV crisis is a reminder of the hurdles facing post-communist countries as they strive to entrench their new press freedoms.
Across most of central and eastern Europe, boisterous Western-style tabloids, muckraking exposÚs and no-holds-barred TV debates have supplanted the grey propaganda that passed as journalism under communism.
Millions of Czechs saw first-hand just how far the transition has come in November 1999 when, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, Czech TV rebroadcast a full day of programming from that historic date.
Save for the occasional cartoon or cultural show, programmes from that day featured a drab line-up of droning communist politicians, apparently oblivious -- or dismissive of -- the momentous events unfolding on the streets just outside the studio.
Yet for all the surface change, one legacy of communism's fall has been harder to eradicate: a mutual distrust between politicians and reporters, which came to a head in the stand-off between dissident journalists and their new boss at Czech TV.
The dispute and the public reaction to it, though different in details, mirrors media battles elsewhere in the region in recent years.
The most notable of these was a series of mass street protests in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in December 1996 to protest a move by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic to shut down an opposition radio station, B-92. Milosevic was subsequently forced to retreat.
Before that, students in Zagreb, Croatia, took to the streets to thwart an attempt by then-President Franjo Tudjman to pull the plug on the Croat capital's own pirate station, Radio 101.
In each case, the journalists have tended to be portrayed as quixotic chroniclers battling for some objective truth in the face of petty politicians bent on thwarting their cause.
Instruments of propaganda
The reality -- especially in the case of the Czech TV imbroglio -- may be much more nuanced. Barbara Trionfi, a press-freedom adviser at the International Press Institute in Vienna, Austria, said journalists, freed from communist constraints, are currying favour with an appreciative public after decades in which they were seen as little more than "an instrument of the government to spread propaganda."
"Because there is a general feeling among the public that politicians are corrupt and that they have too much power, any struggle to oppose this power is very welcome, no matter how it is done," she said. "At the moment, when there is more freedom, journalists are more conscious about their rights."
Some see a broader existential dilemma confronting Central and Eastern European journalists.
"What we are going through right now is the most important part of the process of finding the heart of the profession that we do, our self-identity," said Tomasz Mackowiak, a Prague, Czech Republic, correspondent for Gazeta Wyborcza, the Polish daily that traces its roots to the Solidarity movement. "We are discovering the very simple point that it is the politician who should be a little bit afraid of the journalist, even if that journalist is very young."
As an outsider looking in on Czech society, Mackowiak said he still detected a mood of "servility" among many Czech journalists towards the political establishment. He noted a recent incident in which Czech opposition leader Vaclav Klaus loudly berated, on the air, a radio broadcaster who had pushed a bit too hard with her questions.
"When we compare the independence of the media (in the Czech Republic) and in Poland, in Poland I could not imagine any politician who could do something like that."
Daniel Butora, a reporter with the Slovak service of Radio Free Europe, also based in Prague, said it would be an exaggeration to depict the dispute at Czech TV as a danger to Czech media freedom, which is basically well established.
"This is not a fight between democracy and something else," Butora said. "It's not fair to say the ghosts of communism are coming back."
What is fair to say, Butora believes, is that the relationship between journalists and politicians is still in flux in the Czech Republic as elsewhere, and that this could lead to tension or misunderstanding through a chain of subtle events.
"With Eastern European journalists, there is a feeling that politicians tend to influence and sometimes even run the way the news and analyses and comments are made through various institutions."
Meanwhile, the government may have felt "that Czech TV was being unfair towards them and they were somehow trying to show their dissatisfaction with the situation."
Butora said reporters are still coming to terms with the euphoria spawned by the communist collapse. "How do you deal with your freedom? Like with people coming out of prison, you get your freedom, but then need time to settle down. For the journalists, they still need time. We call it a transition period."
Jeremy Druker, editor-in-chief of Transitions Online, a Prague-based weekly, said the Czech TV journalists chose the perfect timing for their protest -- the Christmas holiday, when Czechs traditionally gather around their televisions.
"It's not just that people were at home," Druker said. "It struck a chord, the image of these young rebellious editors barricaded in their office defending freedom of the press."
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