This article originally appeared on Political Critique.
By Jan Bĕlíček
For the last two weeks, the Czech Republic has been rocked by a remarkable affair surrounding one of the most popular commercial television stations in the country. An audio recording from an internal meeting at Prima TV was published on HlídacíPes.org (WatchDog.org). It captures the editor-in-chief of the television’s news section, Jitka Obzinová, instructing her team on what position to adopt on the European migration crisis.
In the recording, made on Sept. 7, 2015, which was leaked by an anonymous participant, Obzinová states that if someone does not share their employer’s point of view, “then there is no point in them being employed here.” A deputy of the station’s owner, vice-chairman of FTV Prima Holding Luboš Jetmar, was also present at the meeting, according to Prima’s management, “as someone with several years of experience of living in the Arab world.”
What then is the line that editors at Prima are to strictly follow? Paint the migration crisis as a safety threat to the EU, warn against the Islamization of Europe, and support the opinion that here in the Czech Republic, we don’t want any refugees. The incident is quite a good illustration of the dynamic of Czech anti-refugee hysteria, and partly upsets the ingrained idea of the fundamentally xenophobic disposition of the uneducated Eastern European masses. An important role in this hysteria is played by local cultural and social elites, and even Western societies are unwilling to do anything about this trend, including situations in which they have both the methods and the authority to do so, as is the case with the Swedish-owned TV Prima.
At the same meeting, Obzinová also distributed a text by Vlastimil Vondruška bearing the title “We Have Lost and We Will Bear the Consequences,” which uses a highly conspiratorial vision of historical politics to claim that the large numbers of refugees moving from the Middle East are a deliberate attempt of the Muslim world to colonize Europe. Vondruška, formerly the director of the historical department of the National Museum in the 1980s, is now a very popular author of historical fiction and is the most borrowed author in Czech libraries. On the audio recording, Obzinová adds: “I think this is the position of this channel’s management. I see it the same way and I want us to face the migration crisis in this way.” It is already tragic that this text was published without any problem in one of the most popular Czech dailies, Mladá fronta Dnes, currently owned by the Minister of Finance Andrej Babiš, let alone that a commercial television station used it as the foundation for its reports on refugees and migrants.
Vondruška’s text rehashes the greatest hits of the anti-immigration movement—the fall of Ancient Rome, the Ottoman invasion of Europe, the weakness and excessive benevolence of the European Union. But there’s more: According to Vondruška, “for at least 1000 years, Christian Europe has fought with the Islamic Middle East, the Muslims use our own weapons against us, and that awful weapon is human rights.” In the Middle East itself, Europeans “supported collaborationist movements and began proclaiming our democracy,” which nobody there was interested in.
The text then rises to an unsurprising finale. The extremists have supposedly discovered that terrorist attacks might frighten Europeans, but they cannot secure any strategic gains, and so they have resorted to another tactic. “Why use weapons against us, when all that is needed is for a few hundred thousand Muslim families to move to Europe. After all, why do we wage war? To occupy enemy territory.” This tactic, supposedly, was already used by the Germanic peoples in their struggle against the Romans.
Vondruška then effectively rounds off his argument: “We have abandoned our Limes, opened Europe’s borders, stopped doing what every functioning state does, which is protect the integrity and sovereignty of the land and its citizens. Of course, we can talk of human solidarity, of humanism, but the road to hell is always paved with good intentions. No one can estimate the number of refugees that will still to come to Europe. But let us not doubt that our Islamic enemies will try and make this number as large as possible.”
How one might base a television news service on this text remains a mystery. In any case, the ideological work carried out by the station’s management soon bore fruit. Only a single editor handed in their resignation after this meeting. The rest accepted the order and took it up as the basis of their journalistic work.
Both an analysis by HlídacíPes.org and an independent inquiry by the Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting (RRTV) registered a marked difference in the way Prima reported on the refugee crisis since the editorial meeting took place, and found serious violations of the journalistic code of ethics. According to HlídacíPes.org, in the month following the meeting, not a single positive story on refugees ran on Prima news, whereas in the month preceding it there were six, and 72.6 percent of the reports framed the refugee crisis in strongly negative terms.
Karel Voříšek, anchor of the main news program, introduced a report on refugees with the following: “I don’t know about you, but it’s not easy for me to look at what’s happening in Europe today. But at least something is finally happening, heightened police activity on the Austrian-German border, checks on trains, all of that has considerably reduced the influx of refugees.” Reporter Bohumil Roub finished his coverage of the situation on the Hungarian-Serbian border with the words: “Nobody dares predict when the refugee invasion will end. Up to 150 million people are allegedly making their way to Europe.”
An anonymous source from Prima TV’s news team described the situation for HlídacíPes.org: “Really, I got the following instructions several times: shoot a survey about refugees with people on the street, but we only want negative reactions. Or, in the stand-up, say that people don’t want refugees in their town and are scared of them, without anyone having confirmed that.” These are all serious accusations, but their gravity only increases when we take into account the Czech Republic’s law on television broadcasting.
Despite Prima being a commercial television channel, it is a licensed subject which has to adhere to the radio and television broadcasting law. This includes paragraphs such as “the broadcasting operator must provide objective and balanced information essential to the formation of a free opinion. Opinions or commentaries must be separated from news broadcasting.” Furthermore, the law also stipulates that the RRTV will not extend the operator’s broadcasting license if they “broadcast programs which incite hatred due to gender, race, skin color, language, faith or religion, political or other persuasions, national or social background, membership in a national or ethnic minority, property, lineage or other standing.”
However, the Council cannot act upon a behind-the-scenes audio recording, but must identify problematic behaviors directly on screen. Nevertheless, Ivan Krejčí, RRTV chairman, told the news server ECHO24.cz: “if it’s true that employees are instructed to proceed against the maxims of objectivity and balance, that they broadcast at odds with the law, then the situation is alarming.”
RRTV carried out an extensive analysis of the largest television broadcasters in the country in connection with the migration crisis. TV Prima was the only subject whose broadcasting they found problematic. Despite that, the Council did not resort to financial sanctions, let alone the radical solution of withdrawing Prima’s broadcasting license. Already a few months before the recording was published, major doubts about Prima’s reports on refugees began to appear. The most serious incident was a report from Feb. 11 on the arrival of Christian families from the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil. In it, one of the refugees supposedly referred to the flats provided by the city of Jihlava as a “painted over cow-shed,” and that he would sooner return to Iraq than suffer such accommodation.
Later, however, it became apparent that a manipulated translation had been published by the station. Batto was speaking in the conditional and referring to a hypothetical situation, rather than commenting on the condition of the lodgings provided by the city of Jihlava. This was also the reading of interpreter Adam Homsi, hired by FTV Prima for a revised translation. He alerted FTV Prima to the real meaning of the statement, and commented further: “Prima even asked me specifically if it was meant in the conditional or whether it was a description of the actual state of affairs, and I replied that it was colloquial speech in the conditional.”
Despite that, Prima did not state these factors in their broadcast—on the contrary, on Feb. 15, the main anchors repeated that the comment about a painted over cow-shed was really a critique of the Jihlava flats. The affair was ultimately investigated by RRTV on April 19. The record from the meeting makes it clear that according to the Council, Prima committed an act of manipulation and thereby broke the law. The decision was not voted through, however, because, under shady circumstances, only six out of the 12 members of the Council were present at the proceedings, and the vote was therefore invalid.
Regarding the audio recording scandal, FTV Prima so far only commented that the purpose of the editorial meeting “was to set an editorial approach to the topic of the refugee question that would be consistent and intelligible to the viewer.” Public relations newspeak has reached a new low here. We have reason to expect, then, that the affair will have no impact on Prima’s broadcasting in the future. On the contrary, Czech president Miloš Zeman rushed to its defense, claiming that reporting truthfully on the refugee crisis is not a crime.
The Western media often print unflattering claims on the racist, backward, and xenophobic east of Europe, which refuses to accept European liberal and democratic values. In this respect, it is interesting that half the shares of FTV Prima are owned by the Swedish company MTG Broadcasting, which we asked for an official statement. MGT stated via its representative Jessica Sjöberg that “We have not been presented to any facts, neither from the Prima management or after reading the transcript from the meeting, pointing to the editor-in-chief or other management trying to influence staff on how to report. We have no reason to not have confidence in the Prima management and we have not been presented any facts pointing to any decisions that have been made that breaches our strong policies of objectivity and free press.”
It is obvious that strong policies on objectivity and free press are pushed aside by the Swedish owners if the Czech company in their portfolio is doing well and generating appropriate profit. Prima is the third most popular station in the Czech Republic and its share of all-day ratings in the 15+ group is 23 percent. Moreover, last year, FTV Prima increased its profit by 48 percent to 298 million crowns ($12 million), and its revenue went up by 7 percent to 2.8 billion crowns ($117 million). The annual report also makes it clear that this year, they expect another rise in profit, at around 15 percent. It is therefore in the interests of the Swedish owner to support the current practice, values or no values.
Translated by Ian Mikyska.
Jan Bělíček is an editor of the Czech progressive daily website A2larm.cz
[Photo courtesy of Itsyoungrapper]