Tens of thousands attend free-media rally
An estimated 100 thousand Czechs gathered in Wenceslas Square on Wednesday evening to demonstrate for press freedom and express support for rebel staff at Czech Public Television, who are locked in battle with a new management whom they accuse of political bias. Eyewitnesses describe the free media rally on Wenceslas Square as the largest demonstration of this kind since Czechs took to the streets to overthrow communism just 11 years ago. Artists, political figures and church dignitaries threw their weight behind the protest action, taking turns to address the crowd and calling on Czech politicians to take immediate action to guarantee the independence of public broadcasting.
Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla who attended the demonstration told the crowd that the Cabinet had just approved a new broadcasting law that should guarantee full independence for Czech Radio and Television. The present law is believed to be responsible for the current crisis at Czech Television, as it indirectly allows public broadcasting to come under political pressure. The new law, which has yet to be debated in Parliament, stipulates that Parliament should elect members of the Radio and Television Council from candidates proposed by experts in the field. If approved in its present form the new legislation would terminate the mandate of both the Parliament-based Radio and Television Council and the Supervisory Board of Czech Television. New elections to both supervisory bodies would have to be held within 30 days of the law's coming into effect.
Culture minister Pavel Dostal, who went on a late night news and analysis programme to inform the public about the proposed legislation, was said to be outraged when on the general director's orders the programme was blacked out. Dostal allegedly intends to take the matter to court.
During a stormy debate in the Senate on Wednesday, Freedom Union Senator Josef Zieleniec said the crisis at Czech Television was a result of the power- sharing pact between the governing Social Democrats and the opposition Civic Democratic Party. Both parties have on numerous occasions shown disrespect for journalists and both are guilty of trying to influence them, Mr. Zieleniec noted. Senate deputy chairman Jan Ruml noted that the majority these two parties have in the lower house of Parliament could be abused to allow them to maintain their grip over the public media. The Senate has appealed to Czech Television's controversial general director to resign and open the way to a constructive dialogue.
Meanwhile, at Czech Television the battle entered a new phase on Wednesday as rebel journalists uncovered alleged communist ties to the management they oppose. Both management and rebel staff continue to put out their own news broadcasts, one aired via terrestrial transmitters, the other by cable and satellite. However, the staff newly hired by the management is unable to fill all of the live broadcast slots and there are frequent programme disruptions. Protesting journalists, who have not been able to leave the workplace for over a fortnight for fear of not being allowed back in, have turned the newsroom into living quarters by converting film cutting booths into bedrooms, installing chemical toilets and hauling in food and supplies through a window. A Prague court on Wednesday refused to issue Czech TVs general director Jiri Hodac a court order to have the newsroom evicted by the police.
The European Commission has said it will consider an appeal from the International Federation of Journalists to step into the dispute over the future of Czech Public Television. The Brussels-based IFJ, which represents more than 450,000 journalists in over 100 countries, has described the dispute as "a litmus test for press freedom and democracy in the Czech Republic".
The government has approved the launch of a tender for the purchase of up to 36 new fighter-jets for the Czech army. The conditions of the tender will be announced by January 10th, and proposals will be assessed according to military and technological requirements, maintenance conditions, price and form of payment. Aircraft manufacturers will have until May 31st to present their proposals.
Road maintenance crews have been working around the clock to clear roads of snow and ice and the police report a high incidence of chain accidents caused by cars skidding on ice. Drivers have been asked not to head for the mountains without winter tires and chains. Thursday should bring more overcast skies and drizzle, with day temperature at between 1 and 5 degs C.
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