Cultural Developments – Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic since 1989


Return to Democracy: The post-1968 invasion "normalisation" regime existed almost unchanged until 1989. The regime operated by means of shrill propaganda campaigns which deprived society of meaningful public discourse. Although the role of the independent dissident culture and of Western news broadcasts in stimulating a broader public debate was small, from the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion onwards, the Western media, broadcasting in Czech and Slovak, enjoyed in effect an information monopoly in communist Czechoslovakia, the official Czechoslovak media propaganda being so ludicrous that almost no one believed it. However, as a result of Western radio broadcasts, many Czechoslovaks acquired an idealised image of the West and failed to understand that a pluralist debate, not mere anticommunism is the basis of Western democratic societies. At the same time, people had reached an understanding with the communist regime, on the whole adopting themselves to the prevailing political conditions and perfunctorily going along with what the regime demanded of them.

As almost an act of historical revenge on the pro-Soviet collaborators, the first cracks in the totalitarian system in Czechoslovakia appeared because of Gorbachev´s liberalising policies in the Soviet Union. Paradoxically, the Russian-language broadcasts of the first programme of Russian state television, re-transmitted throughout the whole of Czechoslovakia for the benefit of the occupying Russian troops, suddenly included open and hard-hitting political discussions the likes of which could never be broadcast by Czechoslovak television at this time. Soviet newspapers and magazines, originally imported into Czechoslovakia for propaganda purposes and some of them translated into Czech (Sputnik) were suddenly filled with argument which – for the Czechoslovak communist power wielders – was dangerously reminiscent of the Prague Spring of 1968. But the Czechoslovak Communist leaders managed successfully to stall and until 1989, přestavba, the Czech equivalent of Russian perestroika, made little progress. The regime was almost as rigid in 1988 as it had been in 1970.

Nevertheless, the pressures from the outside were increasing. A heavy blow to the regime came towards the end of 1988, when the intense jamming of the Czech and Slovak broadcasts of American funded Radio Free Europe was stopped, on the orders from the Soviet Union. Radio Free Europe was devoting considerable attention to the activities, comments and pronouncements of dissidents within Czechoslovakia, including Václav Havel. With the cessation of the jamming, large numbers of people started following these often dramatic broadcasts, which played a major role throughout the events of 1989.

The Czechoslovak communist authorities tried to suppress student demonstrations in January 1989, marking the twentieth anniversary of Jan Palach´s immolation, and the police acted against public demonstrations at several other times, culminating in a brutal beating of a student demonstration in Prague on 17th November, 1989. A factually incorrect newsitem, which Radio Free Europe had received from a Prague dissident newsservice, said that one of the student demonstrators had been killed. It was the broadcasting of this news-item that triggered large anti-regime demonstrations on Wenceslas Square from the Monday 20th November. These demonstrations led to the collapse of the communist regime and to the formation of a coalition of dissidents, called Civic Forum.

The Czech media freed themselves of censorship approximately within a week. Radio and television news which previously dismissed demonstrations as illegal, began giving full accounts of them. A speech by Alexander Dubček on 25th November 1989 was carried live. In December 1989 libraries were opened up again and banned films were released. A tidal wave of publication by banned authors, many of them previously published in the West, flooded Czechoslovakia from 1990.

The public was first interested in this "forbidden fruit" and the first few titles achieved spectacular printruns, for instance Ivan Klíma´s book of short stories Má veselá jitra (My merry mornings), which had first been brought out by Škvorecký´s 68 Publishers in Canada in 1979, sold 148 000 copies within a few weeks in the spring of 1990. As early as 1991, however, the public got tired of the previously banned works. Klíma´s novel Soudce z milosti (A Judge on Trial), first published in Czech in London in 1986, was printed in Prague in only 15 000 copies in 1991 and several thousand copies remained unsold still years later. A large number of new publishing houses were set up. The average printruns of books stabilised at 1000 – 2000 copies per title by the end of the 1990s. Many writers of middle-of-the road, entertainment literature who published extensively during the communist era could no longer find a publisher in the early years of the post-communist regime. Partially, this was for market reasons, partially for ideological reasons.

After 1989, anticommunism became a potent political force, perhaps because many people felt they had to cover up for the fact that they had concluded a modus vivendi with the pre-1989 communist regime and so they now assumed a radical "right-wing" atttitude. In fact, although Czech politics between 1992-1997 was dominated by "right-wing" rhetoric, many of the government policies were distinctly post-communist and social democratic.

It was difficult for the notion of pluralism to penetrate into the Czech media, which had been decimated during the previous two decades of communist rule. After the fall of communism, many journalists simply switched sides – where they once generated propaganda for the communist regime, they now uncritically supported the anticommunist government. Until the mid-1990s, the mainstream media with the exception of the former communist daily Právo would not criticise the policies of Prime Minister Václav Klaus and would brand anyone who would do so a communist. Some people suffered a publication ban because of their relatives or because of their past. Thus, for instance, in the early 1990s, a Czech specialist in the Baltic countries had to publish his articles in Lidové noviny (People´s Newspaper) under a changed name because he was a grandson of a well-known Stalinist literary ideologue from the 1950s and the appareance of the grandfather´s surname in a democratic newspaper was deemed impermissible (the specialist did not share his grandfather´s political views). Weekly newsmagazines like Respekt (Respect) re-wrote articles to fit their pre-conceived ideological standpoint and suppressed topics which were alien to their political views. In 1992, the Respekt magazine started a campaign against Jan Kavan, a left-wing dissident who had run an emigré news agency Palach Press in London for twenty years, disseminating Czech dissident documentation in the West. Respekt implied without proper evidence that Kavan had been a secret police agent and refused to publish statements by his dissident colleagues (Drahuše Proboštová, etc.) testifying in his defence.

Gradually, an emasculated, conventional, relatively apolitical mainstream view emerged in the majority of Czech newspapers, which was characterised by journalist Bohumil Pečinka in Reflex magazine in the spring of 1999 thus:

"The Czech journalist works within a small-town mentality. In the Czech small town, a mainstream conventional view rules supreme. This conventional view dictates what public opinion should be, it ruthlessly terrorises doubters and forces them to join the mainstream. The Czech small town can usually stand just about one or two individuals with a different experience, but these are merely tolerated ´lunatics´. The small town looks at them with benign superiority. Everyone else is either ruthlessly silenced by a tidal wave of banality or driven out of the small town.

The small town does not hold strong views, right wing or left wing. The small town believes in the unifying official, nationwide view, one conventional truth. You must obey. The small town esteems the mainstream view and will defend it with a remarkable crowd instinct. You will rarely glean any genuine information from Czech newspapers, but they do constantly tell you what is proper for you to think. The moment you open a Czech newspaper, a commentator puts you into a pigeonhole: are you a communist, a coward and a lover of old times? Then you must think this. Are you a democrat, are you intelligent and of a good character? This, then, is your view. You do not want to join either crowd? Forget it, my dear. You are in the Czech Republic. Individualism is not permitted."

As for instance Ondřej Vaculík testified in Literární noviny in May 2001, many newspapers entered an unwritten agreement not to criticise their media rivals, for fear that they might criticise them: thus serious critical media analysis is on the whole suppressed or rejected.

There are problems with both main Czech nationwide television stations. A downmarket commercial Nova Television, watched by some 50 per cent of the Czech population was founded in 1993 with American money, but its Czech director, Vladimír Železný, took the station away from the American investors in the summer of 1999; the American owners took him to arbitration at the International Chamber of Commerce in Amsterdam, suing him for damages. Železný now relies on an oblique group of Czech financial oligarchs for financing his station and the news broadcasts by Nova TV openly further their business interests. In a regular weekly programme "Call the Director", Železný speaks to the nation in a manipulative manner, often foulmouthing various rivals without granting them the right to reply.

The post-communist public service Czech Television has always had problems with its weak news and current affairs output. Since 1998, there have been four abortive attempts to professionalise the news and current affairs department. The last of these, in December 2000, when the Council for Czech TV appointed a BBC journalist of many years as Chief Executive at Czech Television, resulted in a spectacular rebellion by the news and current affairs department, followed by the whole television station. The new boss planned to introduce professional assessment procedures and wished to open up the internal television finances to public scrutiny. The television rebels turned an internal labour dispute into a conflict between the two main political groupings in the country, won the support of the main opposition grouping, hijacked the programmes of the television station for their own propaganda, alleging that the appointed BBC journalist was politically biased, and used public service television broadcasts to organise mass public protests. Their often crude attacks against their new boss eventually forced the BBC man to resign. The Czech authorities were scared by the power of television and failed to act against the populist rebellion. In the spring of 2001, further reform attempts at Czech public service television were unlikely.

The Czech penal code still contains several remnants of the communist past and the courts occasionally try to sentence people according to these provisions.

Under Article 206 of the Czech Penal Code, slander is a criminal offence, punishable up to two years´ imprisonment and/or by a publication ban. According to Article 260 of the Czech Penal Code, (even verbal) support of "movements whose aim it is to infringe human rights and freedoms which proclaim national, racial, religious and class hatred" is punishable by imprisonment of up to five years, up to eight years if the crime has ben commited in the media, if it has been committed by a member of an organised group or if it has been committed in a state of emergency. According to Article 199 of the Czech Penal Code, the "dissemination of unfounded, alarmist news" is punishable by up to five years´imprisonment.

In 1992, the anti-Semitic journal Politika was closed down and its editor given a seven-month suspended sentence; the pop-group, Braník, was similarly sentenced for "racially defamatory songs". When in 1995, the head of a printing firm was dismissed for producing child pornography, the Association of Printers warned that censorship might have to return to protect them from liability.

In 2000, publisher Michal Zítko was charged under Article 260 for bringing out a Czech translation of Adolf Hitler´s Mein Kampf, but was freed on appeal. By May 2001, his internet bookseller has been found guilty of selling Mein Kampf under the same article, his case had not gone to appeal yet. In May, 2001 the American lawyer Edward Fagan, who criticised the nuclear power plant in Temelín, South Bohemia, was charged with "disseminating alarmist news" under article 199.


A final part of Jan Culik´s entry on Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic in the International Encyclopedia of Censorship, 2001.