History of Censorship in Bohemia
Part Five - From 1945 up to the present day
Jan ČulíkFrom May 1945, technically no censorship existed in Czechoslovakia, but conflicts soon emerged between the individual political parties. Thus, in November 1945, the communist information minister Václav Kopecký accused the People's Party of publishing newspapers which print "fascist and reactionary material". Kopecký temporarily banned some of these newspapers. There was a danger that the information minister would arbitrarily persecute and or prohibit the publication of non-communist newspapers, whenever they criticised the Czechoslovak government or the Allies. Thus requests were made for the institution of official censorship, based on clearly defined rules. The communists first refused to comply, but in December 1947 it was decided that an inspection department should be set up in the Information Ministry to monitor all newspapers for breaches of the law. Individual breaches were to be handed over to the Interior Ministry for prosecution. The print media were not allowed, among other things, to publish criticism of the then current two-year economic plan, to question Czechoslovakia's internal and foreign policy and to discuss military matters. These areas were so broad than any criticism of the government or a minister could be prosecuted. Before full censorship was be instituted, the communists took over power in February 1948 and created a pro-Soviet, totalitarian state, which existed until November 1989.
Shortly after February 1948, the communist information minister noted with satisfaction that the Communist Party now was in full control of all the media and the arts, including the production processes. In 1948 - 1953, the Communist party exercised its monopoly of propaganda and information via a party censorship office, subsequently, the censorship was run jointly by the party and the government. The aim of the communist authorities was to annul all meaningful discourse in society and to replace it by ideological cliches.
In general terms, the agenda for the media was set by the Cultural Council, a department of the Communist Party leadership. The everyday inspection and direction of the media was carried out by the culture and propaganda department of the Communist Party Central Committee and by similar party committees in the regions and districts. The Communist Party exercised control even over non-communist periodicals, but most non-communist periodicals and newspapers were closed down after 1948.
The Communist Party Press Department issued strict guidelines to the newspapers and periodicals and checked daily whether they were adhered to. Editors-in-chief of all the media were Communist Party members. It was their personal party assignment to make sure that the party line was strictly observed. From 1951, censor editors were assigned to the radio and the newspapers.
The Central Committee of the Communist Party founded a Readers Council which approved editorial plans, submitted by the individual publishing houses. Works by politically "unreliable" authors were prohibited. Several lists of banned titles were compiled by the appropriate Departments of the Communist Party Central Committee in 1949-1953. From 1950, libraries owned by monasteries and religious orders were destroyed. From 1952, all public libraries were cleansed of "trotskyite and anti-Soviet literature, right-wing social democratic literature and works by T.G.Masaryk and Edward Beneš". One copy of each banned work was retained, all the other copies were pulped. According to estimates, 27,5 million books were destroyed in Czechoslovakia in this period.
On 22nd April, 1953, the Czechoslovak government secretly created the Office for the Supervision of the Press - a preliminary censorship office, which was accountable to the Interior Ministry and cooperated closely with the Czechoslovak secret police. Editors-in- chief of newspapers, radio, television, publishing houses and organisers of cultural events had to submit all materials to appear in the public domain ahead of publication. The censors prohibited the publication of state secrets and materials which contradicted the political line and the guidelines of the Communist Party. Only those materials could be printed or otherwise disseminated which had been assigned a number by the censorship office. The publication of materials without a censorship number was a criminal offence. Censorship officials occasionaly monitored theatrical performances and other cultural events to make sure that the artists did not say anything unauthorised. The censorship office informed the Communist Party about its actions against the media in a daily bulletin. The actions of the communist censors were often extremely petty. From early days onwards it was impossible to publish anything about the seamy side of life in Czechoslovakia. Thus, for instance, a photograph of a child was removed from an exhibition in the North Bohemian town of Teplice in November 1953 because the child's clothes were threadbare and the child was dirty. A chocolate factory could not publish instructions for its staff in its internal newsletter how to avoid mistakes in the production process because no mistakes in production could ever occur under "socialism". Censorship interfered with personal ads and death notices. The censors also stipulated a number of pages that a newspaper should have and its printrun, in order to give priority to the Communist Party daily Rudé právo. By 1955, the head of the censorship office published a large number of lists of facts to be supressed, relating to all walks of life. These were often updated, so soon, confusion ruled. Attempts were made to simplify these guidelines.
The regime tried to isolate the country from the outside world by expelling most foreign correspondents and by closing the bureaux of Western news agencies. Private mail, especially letters directed abroad, were regularly checked by censorship. In an attempt to limit the amount of international mail, from February 1950, any letter to be posted abroad had to have a return address, had to be personally handed in at the post office by the sender and the identity of the sender was verified from his or her ID. In 1953, the postal censorship had 190 employees who were expected to inspect 750 000 postal items daily. The communist regime was also trying to suppress the broadcasting of western radio stations in Czech and Slovak and in cooperation with its East European allies quickly built a dense network of jamming transmitters. These jammed Western radio broadcasts in Czech and Slovak until late 1988.
The strict and efficient system of censorship was in place in principle until 1968, but in the early 1960s, the communist authorities were began to lose their ideological ardour. The Soviet-style totalitarian zeal was diluted by strong Czechoslovak democratic traditions, by common-sense and by pragmatism. The fact that preliminary censorship had been institutionalised and hence it was not totally arbitrary, made it possible for liberal journalists and cultural activists to fight a rear guard action against it in the de-stalinisation period of the 1960s.
From 1963 onwards, liberalisation first affected Czech theatres. On 1st September 1965, the Central Censorship Office lost its authority over theatre. Henceforth, Czechoslovak theatres were to submit the plays which they planned to stage to the Ministry of Culture for approval. In disputed cases, where the opinion of censorship differed from the opinion of the officials at the Ministry of Culture, the final decision was made by the ideological department of the Communist Party Central Committee, which by this time was controlled by liberal, reformist communists.
In 1966, the Czechoslovak government issued a press law (No. 81/1966). By doing so, it legalised the institution of censorship for the first time in Czechoslovakia under communist rule, attempting to define its prerogative. The Central Office for the Supervision of the Press was re-named the Central Publication Office. It became a civilian institution, controlled by a government minister. The censorship had the right to prohibit publication of state secrets, but publishers could negotiate about materials dealing with matters of public interest. In December 1967, the Communist Party Central Committee decreed that it was a matter for editors-in-chief to decide whether or not to obey the instructions of the censors with regard to controversial material. Even so, in early 1968, editors-in-chief still did not dare to disobey the censors and removed articles from their periodicals, as directed. In January 1968, for instance, Divadelní noviny (The Theatre Journal) suppressed a long interview with playwright Václav Havel, entitled "Serving the truth by bearing testimony about our times". The censorship office continued functioning until approximately April 1968, but its role considerably weakened with the progress of the liberal reforms during the Prague Spring. On 5th March, 1968, the head of the censorship office Kovařík provided advance information about the new Communist Party Action Programme, which was published on 10th April, 1968. The Action Programme said: "The working people, who are no longer being dictated to by a class of exploiters, cannot be arbitrarily told from above which information should or should not be available to them. Scholarly journals and scholarly debates must not be subject to preliminary censorship. The arts must not be subject to censorship."
A new Czechoslovak government abolished the Central Publication Office on 13th June 1968. The abolishment of censorship was confirmed by Law No. 84/1968, dated 26th June, 1968. Article 17 of this law said: "Censorship is impermissible. Censorship is defined as action by the state authorities against the freedom of speech and pictures and against their dissemination by the mass media." Article 18 defined classified information. The government was to publish a list of state secrets for editors-in-chief.
Shortly after the Soviet-led invasion of the Warsaw Pact into Czechoslovakia, which took place on 21st August, 1968 and ended the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring, the Czech National Assembly adopted Law No. 127/1968 which cancelled Article 17 of Law. No. 84/1968 about the impermissibility of censorship. This law also created two new separate censorship offices: the Office for Press and Information and the Slovak Office for Press and Information. The task of these new offices was to "direct and control the mass media in a unified manner". Article 3 of Law No. 127/1968 decreed that the Office for Press and Information had the right to make sure that "no information which is in conflict with important interests of the state" would be published.
After the Soviet invasion, preliminary censorship was replaced by self-censorship by editors and journalists. Henceforth, the individual journalists became responsible for what they published. Possible subsequent punishment, which included the closing down of the periodical for up to three months, hanged as a threat over all journalists, who became too afraid to risk publishing anything controversial.
In 1972, all public libraries were purged of materials "critical of Marxism-Leninism, the policy of the socialist [i.e. communist] states and of the Marxist-Leninist Parties", further items to be removed comprised "revisionist and right-wing opportunist literature, works praising the capitalist order, the pre-war Czechoslovak Republic, works by T.G.Masaryk and Edward Beneš and by other bourgeois politicians, all works (regardless of their content) by authors who have emigrated from Czechoslovakia or aligned themselves with the right-wing forces in 1968 as well as unproblematic works with a problematic preface or an afterword." Libraries were inspected on the basis of lists, published by the central State Library of the Czech Republic. All the offending titles were banned. The Prague University Library held a special collection of Libri Prohibiti, for which it purchased titles brought out by Czech emigré publishers. This collection was not made accessible to the public until after 1989. Censorship after 1968 was so petty that even many academic publications were suppressed. Thus, for instance, the fourth volume of the academic Dějiny české literatury (A History of Czech Literature), edited by Jan Mukařovský and covering the period 1900 - 1945 was ready for publication in 1969, but it was suppressed for being "ideologically confused". The work was not published until 1995.
The neostalinist regime, imposed on Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of 1968, managed again to isolate society almost totally from any meaningful discourse until the end of the 1980s. The propaganda onslaught was sustained and the isolation of society from independent thought and the country's critically-thinking, intellectual elite was profound. In 1970s, the Interior Ministry abolished the reformist Union of Czech Writers, thereby suppressing the work of 400 Czech writers, most of whom had actively participated in the reforms of the late 1960s and in the Prague Spring of 1968. These writers and other intellectuals were pushed into a political ghetto. They were isolated from society by sackings, by police surveillance and by harassment.
Czechoslovak society underwent serious political purges after 1968. Several hundred thousand people, who had been involved in the liberal reforms of the 1960s, lost their jobs. In 1969-1972, the banned writers of Czechoslovakia gradually created a samizdat literary culture. They started publishing books and periodicals in typescript. The mainstream typewritten publications circulated usually in up to 70 copies and according to estimates, such titles reached on average about a thousand readers.
Samizdat publishing reached its heyday after the emergence of the human rights movement Charter 77 in the late 1970s and in the 1980s. Writers and publishers of Czechoslovak samizdat closely cooperated with several Czech emigré publishers who operated in the West from the early 1970s. The most well-known of these was the publishing house of Zdena and Josef Škvorecký, "68 Publishers" in Toronto, Canada, which brought out on subscription more than 220 original titles in 1971-1993. A number of these titles were published in translations into Western languages particularly in the 1980s. The works of Czech authors Milan Kundera, Václav Havel, Josef Škvorecký, Bohumil Hrabal and others, paradoxically, gained international recognition at a time when they could not be published in their native country.
The impact of independent Czech literature on the consciousness of Czech and Slovak society in the 1970s and 1980s was relatively small. Under the pressure of two decades of fierce political propaganda, which eliminated the possibility of critical public discourse, Czech and Slovak society developed its own distinctive culture of subjugation, whose typical features were conformism, consumerism, extreme self-interest, wariness of the public sphere and avoidance of politics. It is these values that prevailed in Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism in 1989, rather than the values of the dissident intellectual community.
In 1990, the Czechoslovak Parliament passed Law No. 86/1990, which abolished the Press Law No. 127/1968 and updated Press Law No.81/1966, removing Marxist and Communist terminology. Law No. 86/1990 fully restored the Article No. 17 of Law No.84/1968, stating that censorship is impermissible.
The Czech Republic has enjoyed press freedom since 1990, but most journalists have failed to use it effectively. An atmosphere of political conformism ruled in the Czech media until the mid-1990s. There was a general consensus in the media that the post-communist government of premier Václav Klaus would be able to solve all problems and that any criticism of the government was endangering democracy. While this consensus began to fragment from 1996 onwards, when it was realised that Klaus's government had failed to address many issues competently, conformism and absence of independent, critical thinking still survived at the end of the 1990s as a difficult legacy of several decades of totalitarian censorship.
Martin Fendrych, who worked as an official of the Czech Interior Ministry in the 1990s and was in 1998 editor-in-chief of the political weekly Respekt, summed up the situation in the Czech newspapers in the mid-1990s in his memoirs Jako pták na drátě (Like a Bird on a Wire, Prague, 1998) as follows: "I talked to [Jan] Šubert [official spokesman of the Czech Interior Ministry] about the Czech daily newspapers. Would it be possible to work for any of them as a journalist, I asked. He said it would not be. Terror rules everywhere. You wouldn't be allowed to write what you think in any of them, said Šubert."
In the spring of 1998, the Council for Czech Television, an independent supervisory body which inspects the work of Czech public service TV, noted the inferior quality of news and current affairs of this important nationwide Czech television station, and tried to institute reforms. A new Chief Executive appointed a new Head of News and Current Affairs, an experienced journalist, who had worked in London for six years as a reporter for the Czech News Agency and Czech Television. This person tried to reform Czech public service television reporting along BBC lines, attempting to introduce principles of systematic, independent critical thinking and investigative work. He was forced to resign from his post after six weeks and News and Current Affairs on Czech TV quickly reverted to its problematic, post-communist practice.
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Austrian, Czechoslovak and Czech Press and Media Laws:
Zákon o tisku ze dne 17. prosince 1862, ve znění zákonů ze dne 15. října 1868, č. 142 ř. z., ze dne 9. července 1894, č. 161 ř. z., ze dne 10. července 1933, č. 126 Sb. z. a n., a ze dne 10. července 1934, č. 140 Sb. z. a n., a vládního nařízení ze dne 28. května 1935, č. 118 Sb. z. a n., s vládním nařízením ze dne 28. května 1935, č. 119 Sb. z. a n.
121/1920 Sb. Zákon ze dne 29. února 1920, kterým se uvozuje Ústavní listina Československé republiky
50/1923 Sb. Zákon ze dne 19. března 1923 na ochranu republiky (ve znění zákonů č. 124/1933 Sb., č. 140/1934 Sb. a č. 68/1935 Sb.) Změna: 20/1939 Sb., Změna: 30/1945 Sb.
Zákon ze dne 25. října 1966 o periodickém tisku a o ostatních hromadných informačních prostředcích Změna: 84/1968 Sb. Změna: 127/1968 Sb. Změna: 99/1969 Sb. Změna: 86/1990 Sb.