- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2001

PRAGUE Charges of political meddling in public television have set off the biggest outpouring of public anger since 1989, when the Velvet Revolution brought down the Communist regime.

Since before Christmas, dissident journalists have barricaded themselves inside the newsroom at Czech TV, demanding the resignation of a newly appointed news director whom they say is a toady of conservative former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus.

Thousands of supporters continue to rally outside the station's studios daily, and more than 120,000 have signed a petition in support of the strikers.

The issue of journalistic freedom is particularly sensitive in this country with its bitter memories of communism. Many people remember the years in which television was little more than a propaganda instrument for the Communist Party.

The strikers' primary goal is to oust Klaus ally Jiri Hodac, who has fired more than 30 of the rebels and filed criminal complaints against some since he was appointed last month.

He also has threatened to use force to clear the newsroom, but police have refused to intervene, calling it an internal dispute.

Vice Prime Minister Pavel Rychetsky warned in an interview published yesterday by the newspaper Hospodarske Noviny that the standoff could have broader impact on the country.

Without a compromise, he said the situation could "escalate into a general crisis which could lead to early elections." The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2002.

A key test of support comes today with a demonstration planned for Prague's Wenceslas Square, the site where millions rallied in 1989 to end more than four decades of Communist rule.

The controversy began when the Czech Television Council, which supervises publicly funded Czech Television, fired the station's general director and replaced him with Mr. Hodac.

Mr. Hodac is no stranger to Czech television. He worked there as the news editor earlier this year and quit after a rocky relationship with the news staff.

"The Czech Republic is now in a period of time when people are fired for voicing their opinion," said Patrick Kaizr, one of the journalists who was dumped.

Mr. Hodac ordered pink slips handed out on Christmas Eve, prompting journalists and supporters to begin an around-the-clock occupation of the newsroom.

A tumultuous week followed, featuring dueling newscasts, with one produced by the striking news staff and another put out by a skeleton crew patched together by the new management.

The striking reporters have managed to get their newscast out on cable television and by satellite. Thousands of people come to the studio each day to watch their evening news on a huge outdoor TV screen.

But Mr. Hodac has managed to keep the strikers from broadcasting over the air waves and has attempted, without much success, to substitute his own newscast.

For about 24 hours the screens of Czech Television went blank, with one advertising agency estimating the cost in lost ad revenue at more than $300,000.

A day after going off the air, Mr. Hodac reversed himself and ordered the two Czech TV channels to resume broadcasting. They have yet to produce an evening newscast.

Arriving early and staying late, crowds of supporters of the striking journalists carry Czech flags and bawdy political banners mocking Mr. Klaus for what is seen as his bald attempt to turn public television into a media tool for his conservative ODS party, or Civic Democratic Party.

Support by Mr. Klaus' party is crucial to the government of Prime Minister Milos Zeman, who lacks a parliamentary majority.

Apart from seeking Mr. Hodac's ouster, the journalists want parliament to pass a law mandating political independence in the newsroom.

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