The Defence Ministry blackmails Czech Television
A concrete example
The problem with hosts for "21" was the subject of my last article (published in Britské listy on Wednesday 13th May), but I couldn't mention names in that article, because some people here at Česká televize were worried about losing their contacts. Now it has happened to me, so I can write about it fully and openly.
For "21" today (15.5.), we wanted to discuss the theft of secret documents, which had been stolen on Wednesday from the car of a member of the Czech military intelligence service. It is an interesting theme, and certainly someone should answer for this apparent incompetence.
The guests we planned to invite were the head of the parliamentary committe for the inspection of the Czech secret service Jaroslav Bašta (ČSSD) and the Defence Secretary Michal Lobkowicz (US).
When we called the Czech defence ministry, however, we were told that Mr Lobkowicz was in Moravia, but Milan Řepka, the press officer of the Defence Ministry, told me that they would offer (!) us the head of military intelligence Jiří Růžek only on condition that Bašta would not be there.
His argument was that he could not agree (!) to putting a soldier in the studio with a politician. I tried to explain to him that both are public servants and that it is precisely Mr Bašta who is in charge of overseeing these matters for the Parliament. I saw no reason for his objection, and I criticised him for implying that he could put conditions on interviews for "21". I told him that we will simply announce the details of this conversation on "21" tonight and show the empty chair where Mr Růžek was invited to sit.
Well, of course, he tried to go over my head and quickly called Ivan Kytka. I showed this article to Ivan Kytka, and he agreed that such attempts to put conditions on interviews were foul and obscene. This experience has made us redouble our efforts on creating the table on the internet as I mentioned in my last article.
The astounding thing was that Mr Řepka thought that he was offering us something! I was absolutely amazed. I thought we were rightly offering his ministry the chance to defend its position. After all, it is our journalistic duty to present several sides of every issue. We try to get guests on the programme who will oppose each other so that the viewer can decide who has the truth on his side.
Obviously, Mr Řepka, despite having worked for ČT in the past, has no clue as to the role of the media in a democracy, despite his telling me that this is "normal practice" in the West and that I could call the British embassy if I didn't believe him (!?).
It is, unfortunately, not my only experience with Mr Řepka. He called me at the beginning of this week to "offer" me something else. He said he would like to have the visiting US Assistant Secretary of Defence Franklin Kramer on the programme next week. I told him it didn't sound like a bad idea and asked him to call me when he had details of Mr Kramer's schedule. This he did, and we had Kramer booked provisionally for Tuesday.
Of course, this "offer" also had a condition - that I arrange a meeting between Ivan Kytka and Řepka and Kramer. I agreed to this, because it seemed harmless enough, and I was quite interested in Kramer's opinion on certain matters, but I told him he would have to call Kytka himself and ask him for a meeting. I don't speak for Kytka. Kytka obviously agreed with him separately, and we will meet together happily on Wednesday at 1130.
Soon after this phone call. I got a worried message from the "American Centre" telling me to contact a Mrs. Markusová (the assistant to the press officer of the American Centre) at once. Well, I was curious, so I called.
Mrs. Markusová told me that Milan Řepka had no authority to negotiate Kramer's schedule, and that Kramer could not possibly appear on "21" on Tuesday due to a scheduling conflict. I asked Mrs. Markusová if Milan Řepka had overstepped his bounds, and she answered diplomatically saying that Řepka was a "nice man" (in English) but that the schedule of visiting American officials was not his remit.
Dear Mr Řepka and all the other press officers out there: you may not place conditions on interviews on "21". If your ministry or organisation refuses to come and defend itself in front of the citizenry, we will let the viewer know that. No deals.