A group of prominent intellectuals, including writer Ivan Klíma and journalist Bohumil Doležal, have slammed the new president for a comment on the media he made in last week’s inauguration speech. President Zeman promised he would combat parts of the media that he said manipulated opinion, even accusing them of brainwashing the public. In an open letter this week, his critics accused the president of indirectly threatening free speech. Others, though, don’t see it as a freedom of speech issue – at least not yet.
Earlier I discussed the matter with political analyst Jiří Pehe.
“This is consistent with what Mr Zeman has been saying for a long time about the Czech media. He was critical of the media – the right-of-centre media in particular – back when he was prime minister. He felt that journalists were not always objective and fully professional. At the same time, I think that his current criticism of the media is unfortunate because he is no longer a private person, he is the president. And declaring ‘war’ on part of the media simply isn’t very professional on the part of the president.”
At the same time that declaration got applause from many of those present at the inauguration: is it important that a group has responded, in this case, with criticism?
“Well it’s certainly their right, as it is every citizen’s right, to petition the president and to express their disagreement with certain political views. This is certainly okay. At the same time, in this case I can’t help but feel that the step was premature. Mr Zeman was expressing his personal view but there are no indications he would like to take steps to limit the freedom of the press or the media in general. If such steps were being considered that would be the moment, in my view, to truly protest and to take on the fight. Signing a petition against the personal views of the president, misguided or otherwise, seems a little bit like an empty gesture.”
One other thing that became clear over the weekend is that President Zeman plans to largely ignore two major dailies (not granting them more in-depth interviews about his presidency) does that have a precedent in the Czech Republic?
“Unfortunately it does. Ex-president Klaus ignored Czech TV for years to the point where he granted the broadcasting of his New Year’s speech to private TV stations. There is a precedent and it is not a fortunate one. It seems to me that Czech politicians should really learn how to handle media criticism. Maybe they are still not professional politicians in the true sense of the word: these people were sort of thrown into politics after 1989 and didn’t grow up in an environment where it is normal for the media to criticise politicians. Although it sometimes hurts, politicians in the most democratic systems learn to live with it and also know that overall it is healthy for the democratic system.”