Tag Archives: media

Czech presidents: Welcome Mr Zeman!

8 Mar
Klaus a Zeman

Milos Zeman (R) and Vaclav Klaus (Photo zemannahrad.cz)

A small country rarely features on the world news agenda. However, CzechRepublic with its population of 10.5 millions has hit headlines many times, mostly because of its presidents. A new man has taken office today, following the first direct presidential elections in January. Like his predecessors, Milos Zeman has the potential to get onto international news pages. The following is a brief summary of what Czech presidents have been famous for abroad.

Vaclav Havel

The international community had known dissident playwright Vaclav Havel even before he became the first Czechoslovak post-communist president. His plays, banned in his own country, had won him recognition in theatres around the world.

When Czechoslovakia split into two countries in 1993, CzechRepublic kept Mr Havel as a head of state and gained with him the prestige that Slovakia has never had.

He was nominated several times for the Nobel peace price and collected a number of other international awards for his efforts as a global ambassador of conscience.

Mr Havel’s death in December 2011 was mourned around the world. The news of his passing away was shoved off front pages only by the dead of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, announced around the same time.

Vaclav Klaus

Mr Havel’s heir in the office has never shared the world’s admiration for his predecessor. There was a lot of tension between the two men, dating from the time Mr Klaus was a prime minister and going on when he became a president and Mr Havel, although retired, continued to comment on the Czech politics.

Mr Klaus has played down the part dissidents, such as Vaclav Havel, played in bringing down communism, suggesting the regime collapsed on its own. “The role of individuals is usually exaggerated,” he was quoted as saying on the Czech news website Novinky.cz.

The British weekly newspaper The Economist included Vaclav Klaus in its list of controversial Eastern European leaders, who tend to dismiss conventional diplomacy and seek negative publicity. Mr Klaus, for example, has refused to talk to foreign journalists unless they have promised to print his answers in full.

Mr Klaus has been especially noted for his views on the EU and global warming, existence of which he denies.

“I have never seen any sings of the Earth being destroyed. I don’t believe any serious, intelligent person could say such a thing,” he said in 2007.


Mr Klaus has also used one of the harshest eurosceptic parallels for the European Union. “The EU and the RVHP (an economic organization under the leadership of the Soviet Union) are very similar, not ideologically, but structurally. Decisions are not taken in your country,” he said.

Because of Mr Klaus’s long refusal to sign the Lisbon Treaty, CzechRepublic – one of the smallest EU member states – delayed the streamlining of the block’s administration.

Perhaps the greatest fame for Mr Klaus came after his visit in Chile in 2011 when a video of him pocketing a pen adorned with a semi-precious stone got viral on Youtube.


Milos Zeman

Former left-wing Prime Minister Milos Zeman was the presidential favourite of Mr. Klaus.

Although the two men come from opposite sides of political centre, they have much in common. Mr. Zeman made a comparison in his memoir:


“We have differed as followers of Keynesian and neoliberal economic models… I speak better Russian and much worse English. My poor German cannot be compared to that of Klaus. I believe to be a better speaker… but I have read Klaus’ published texts with a lot of interest. We have completely disagreed over European integration, where I have backed federalism. Klaus likes jazz, I like Abba. Klaus is a sportsman, while I am a lazy fat guts who at the very best goes on bike or cross-country ski. We both like bread with pork grease and onion… I could go on with similarities and differences… The important thing is that Klaus is suited to be a president and I dare to say that he is in this office much better than I would be,” he wrote in 2005, two years after he lost presidential vote by parliament.

Like Mr. Klaus, Milos Zeman has had reservations about Vaclav Havel: “I would say that Vaclav Havel was an excellent dissident, but during his political career he did not prove to have the skills of a true statesman,” he wrote in the same book.

The media has often portrayed Mr Zeman as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking politician.

Notorious for his strong language, he gained a nickname “the vulgar prime minister” when he was a head of government between 1998-2002.

He caused uproar on several occasions, once for likening Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler.

At an international conference in 2011, Mr Zeman called Islam an enemy and an anti-civilisation: “Two billion people live in it and it is financed partly from oil sales and partly from drug sales,” he said.

The new president shares his predecessor’s dislike of journalists, labelling them in the past “manure” and “hyenas.” However, he has often specified he meant Czech journalists in particular.

The election victory of Mr Zeman, was widely reported around the world. The news found its way not only to the BBC and The New York Times, but also to the media of countries, in which the interest in tiny Czech Republic would not be expected, such as the Iranian Press TV, Turkish Hurriyet, Pan-Arab Al Jazeera and Chinese Xinhua.

Milos Zeman vowed to take the presidency more actively than his predecessors.

“The president is not a ficus or an oleander (plant) standing in the corner of the room, whose role comprises merely being watered from time to time,” he said in an pre-election debate.
Combine this decision with Mr Zeman’s views and personal style and we can expect to hear more about him in the future.

A prediction made by respected Czech commentator Martin Komarek in 2003 might well fail. He said only Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus will be remembered in a hundred years time. “History will take no notice of Mr Zeman,” he said.


Is the world out there really so evil?

8 Feb

Consequences of Cuba’s travel reform

Cuban press

Cuban media portray the Western world as full of extreme poverty and social injustice

Much to her disbelief the Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez  received a call from an immigration office on 30 Janury, informing that her passport was ready.

The well-known critic of the country’s communist government had been refused a permit to travel abroad 20 times before the migration reform came into effect in January. She said through her Twitter account on 4 February that she had her visa for Brasil and was about to apply for visa to a number of other countries.

Not all Cuban dissidents have been this lucky. Many of them have been refused passports because they have pending prison sentences of for “reasons of public interest”.

Despite its imperfections, the Cuban government seems to be serious about letting people go abroad, at least most of them and for the time being.

The percentage of Cubans taking advantage of the travel liberation will be quite small as the price of the necessary documents, flight tickets and expenses abroad will be unaffordable for the majority. In addition, foreign countries, especially the USA, are unlikely to rush into granting visas to ordinary people.

Even so, there will be more Cubans going abroad and seeing for themselves whether the life beyond the “Iron Curtain” is really like the regime of the Castro brothers has been portraying to them.

The island’s state propaganda can be pleased with the job it has done. Cubans are proud of the achievements of the revolution: “We have free education and free heath care,” they have told me triumphantly. Their jaws have dropped in disbelief when I have replied: “So do we” Although this varies from country to country, heath care and public education to at least secondary school level is free in most of Europe.

There was even more scepticism about my claim that the unemployed in Europe – yes, I admitted there are people without jobs now in a time of an economic crisis – receive financial help from state.

Even the most enlightened of the Cubans I have spoken to – I haven’t met any dissidents – believe the country’s system is the best way to go – it only needs to change its economic model. They believe the double currency is the problem.

There are two kinds of peso in Cuba – “the Peso Cubano” – which Cubans use to buy their food in subsidised shops or in the streets, pay for their bus tickets or household bills and the Peso convertible, CUC, which is used mostly by tourists.

Many Cubans believe that once the island does away with this double-currency system, its economy will revive and the Cuban one-party controlled social and political model will triumph.

I have yet to understand the logic behind this thinking.

The success of the Castrist regime in instilling the desired beliefs deep into people’s minds is hardly surprising, given the government monopoly on information.

I have neither watched the Cuban TV, nor listened to the radio. But newspapers gave me an idea. They are very thin – four sheets in average – and with very little political coverage. Most of the space is taken by sport, culture and advice for couples.

If there is some international news, then a headline usually reads something like: “The US imprisons more people than any other country in the world” – Granma 1 Feb 2013 “Child poverty has risen by 25% in the US” – Granma 25 Feb 2012 or “Misery camps are growing in the US” – Granma 24 Feb 2012

When I was in Cuba a year ago, Cubans needed permission to own a computer and to have an internet connection.

I was told that even those that had internet had their access limited to email and certain websites related to their profession – such as medical research or architecture.

I had to show my passport to prove I was a foreigner, when I wanted to connect in an internet café.

Some have been able to trick the administration and pay for internet licensed to expats living in Cuba. But even for them, the internet connection is so expensive and so slow that they hardly spend much time reading data-heavy international news websites.

However now, some Cubans will be able to travel abroad and they are likely to share their impressions with friends when they come back.

The state’s grip on information will little by little lose its strength. This can lead to only one thing – louder and louder demands for real change.

It will probably take some time and I doubt it will come while Fidel and Raul Castro are still alive (unless they cling exceptionally tightly onto life, which is also possible, given Cuba’s long life expectancy)

Cubans might keep thinking for a long time that despite everything, their island is the best. I met a lady in Santa Clara, who had spent several years in Europe, married to an Italian. She told me she could not stand it there. She missed Cuba’s warm climate and the warmth of its people.

Defence of journalists

27 Nov

Dozens of journalists are killed every year (photo Knight Foundation)

A few years ago, my boyfriend’s aunt ended the conversation we were having by saying: “You know how the journalists are..”, expecting me to nod in agreement on her assumption that journalists are dishonest manipulators of information in favour of whoever pays them.

I kept politely quiet, but inside I was screaming: “No, I don’t agree! The journalists I know are being killed or are languishing in prisons because they want to report the truth!”

The conversation has often come back to my mind, and again now, when the BBC is facing the consequences of mishandling of two stories by its investigative program Newsnight.

Many people have surely said: “What do you expect from journalists…”

Much has been written on the subject. Newsnight editor Peter Rippon explained convincingly in a BBC blog the reasons behind his decision not to run a story into allegations of sex abuse by the former BBC presenter Jimmy Savile. Former Newsnight producer Kavita Reddi detailed the usual rigour that guides Newsnight’s investigations.

I admit editorial standards vary greatly from an organisation to an organisation. But in some places the rules are so strict that journalists can hardly breathe to stay within limits.

Just last week, I attended a course organised by the BBC, called Safeguarding trust. They say the course has nothing to do with the current crises as it was designed before the Newsnight’s mishaps. Interestingly, the last time the BBC organized similar course was after it had broadcasted footage that misrepresented the Queen.

Here are some of the rules the BBC requires its journalist to follow in order to maintain independence:

–          A product or service must never be featured in return for cash, service or any consideration in kind

–          Any reference to a branded product must be clearly editorially justifiable and prominence should not be undue

–          Independence must be both real and apparent

No doubt, much of these are reasonable expectations, taking into account the BBC is a public-funded organisation free of advertisement.

But imagine a situation when a reporter would have a grandstand view of events from a window of a hotel room. The hotel owner lets him use the room free of charge in exchange of nothing at all, just a story he will have to tell over the dinner table.

Nevertheless, the BBC rules say: “No, no, pay for the room!” In my view, a waste of licence fee payers’ money.

In Czech Republic, the press card practically means free ticket to exhibitions, opening parties, theatre performances, etc. There is something in it. For example, a freelancer, who has to pay £10 to visit the UNESCO-listed Villa Tugethat in the Czech city of Brno to earn £50 for an article would struggle to make living.

Impartiality is another of the values the BBC requires its journalists to preserve.

This merits all the praise, when if comes to news. Who would trust biased reports? However, the BBC extends this requirement to out-of-work activities. With the emergence of the social media phenomenon, it warns the staff:

–          Don’t write or say anything that could lead a member of the audience to believe that you may be prejudiced.

Doesn’t this in fact mean stripping journalists of the right to be a private person with opinions?

For the BBC, a perception is as important as reality. Strong character of a journalist who would adhere to the principle “the fact that you bring me here, doesn’t mean you are going to like what I write” is just not good enough.

It is an audience who decides whether a report has been uninfluenced by considerations other then editorial values. Whenever reporting, journalists have to imagine, predict: What would listeners/ readers/ viewers think?

Journalists have certainly considerable power as influencers, with which come responsibility and the potential for abuse. Even with the utmost care, mistakes happen. But deliberate manipulation of information is not inherent in the profession.