The Czech prime minister's rocky relationship with the media reached a head on Monday. At an emotionally charged news briefing, Mirek Topolanek lashed out at journalists, accusing them of bias, betrayal and corrupt practices. He even went so far as to call for a law which would regulate press freedom.
It was expected to be a news conference dominated by the 2008 state budget but the prime minister had a surprise in store. Instead of outlining planned expenditures, Mr Topolanek launched an attack on journalists - accusing them of blackmail, corruption and revenge. He said that during his time in office journalists had threatened him, slandered him and harassed his children while the Czech Syndicate of Journalists stood by and did nothing. Prime Minister Topolanek said that the Czech media - even the serious media - pandered to the opposition Social Democrats and did not hesitate to pay for classified information from state institutions. In short he said that the Czech media had become a cesspool and that given the lack of ethics in journalism it was time to think about a law which would regulate press freedom.
Commentator Jiri Pehe says that while this unprecedented outburst was sparked by the media attention surrounding the PM's private life, there is a deeper underlying problem that is common to many post-communist politicians: getting used to the fact that the media has a role to play in a democratic society.
"First, I do not think that the Czech Republic needs a law that would regulate press freedom and unfortunately I think that the prime minister is repeating the very same mistakes made by his predecessor Jiri Paroubek. Paroubek also proposed such a law and he had a very rocky relationship with the media as well. In fact, Paroubek made very similar charges. He argued, during his tenure, that the Civic Democratic Party of Mr. Topolanek supplied journalists with gossip and information which was then used against the Social Democrats. So I am really surprised that Prime Minister Topolanek is willing to repeat the same line which puts him in the same league with his predecessor whom he criticized for making statements which were hostile to the media."
"We have to say that neither Mr. Topolanek nor the previous prime minister ever contacted us with any concrete complaints that could be passed on to the commission of ethics. We are not surprised by the prime minister's threat to create a law regulating freedom of speech because this threat is not new. It was made by the previous prime ministers as well. We are firmly convinced that freedom of speech should not be regulated in any democratic country. If the prime minister is interested the syndicate is ready to organize a conference on the topic of media ethics with journalists and politicians - with the prime minister's participation naturally."
Whether the prime minister will take up the offer remains to be seen, in any case he concluded Monday's press conference in fighting spirit, saying that although his battle with the media could not be won, he would not give up the fight.