Censorship in Bohemia/Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic
This is a talk for the Censorship Panel at the conference for the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies. A longer version of this paper, concentrating on the history of censorship up to 1989, is here:
Bohemia experienced Protestantism in the 15th century, a hundred years before the rest of Europe. The Hussite revolution ended in a compromise. It is interesting, very briefly, to extend the scope of this talk to the past in order to note that from the late 15th century onwards, Bohemia was a country of religious tolerance, where officially recognised Catholics and Protestants could publish their own literature, as long as they did not attack the other denomination.
In the first half of the 16th century, censorship in Bohemia was particularly ineffective, especially out of the reach of the authorities. Both the church and the secular authorities tried to outlaw the publications of a new, unofficial protestant church, the Unity of Brethren, but generally without success.
The list of banned books compiled by the Trident Council in 1562, was not introduced into Bohemia because it would have caused an outcry, expecially from the protestant side. The protestant church authorities censored (i.e. ensured the accuracy of) their own books, the catholic church authorities did the same for catholic books.
There were many pamphlets and broadsides attacking the opposite religion. As a general rule, the authorities could not control the countryside - so from the invention of printing onwards, decrees were repeatedly published, trying to prevent the setting up of printing offices outside main centres of authority. Prior to 1620, these attempts were usually unsuccessful.
After the Czechs lost to the Habsburgs at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, censorship was taken over by the Jesuits and the Czechs struggled under a strict, absolutist regime. Like in the 1970s, and 1980s, books were smuggled into Bohemia from abroad in the 17th and 18th century. Franz Anton Sporck (1662-1738) was accused in 1729 of printing heretical books in a printing office on his estate in Lysá nad Labem. Sporck was deeply interested in non-orthodoxy and in the teachings of non-catholic theologians. In 1725 he had a whole non-catholic library smuggled in from Silesia, although the import of such banned literature was punishable by death.
Under the rule of the Empress Maria Theresa (1740 - 1780), the Austrian state attempted to take censorship of books into its own hands.
Liberal principles were introduced by the enlightened emperor Joseph II: (1780-1790). State censorship was taken over by supporters of the ideas of Enlightenment. The clergy lost the right to publish theological and religious material without prior permission. The principles of Joseph's censorships were: to allow the publication of educational and scholarly works, whose argumentation was based on fact. Protestant literature was no more to be banned. Criticism of rulers and power holders was allowed, as long as it was factual. Literature based on superstition and publications irreverent towards religion and the state without a factual basis were prohibited, as were unreliable publications by charlatans and quacks. Joseph II. abolished the principle according to which some banned books could be made accessible to certain selected strata of society.
But these liberal principles were abandoned after Joseph's death. Austrian absolutist censorship played a very destructive role for the writers of the Czech National Revivalin the first half of the 19th century: a number of major literary works of the Czech National Revival had severe difficulties in getting into print.
The value system of the Austrian Empire under Metternich can be eloquently summed up in this quote from a speech by Emperor Francis I., made to professors of a lyceum in Ljubljana in 1821:
"Keep to the old values: they are good and our ancestors lived well by them, why not we? New ideas now prevail. I cannot approve of them and I will never approve of them. Keep away from them because I do not need scholars, I need good citizens. It is your job to bring up young people for this purpose. Those who serve me must teach what I order. Those who cannot do this or who come with new ideas, they can go, or I will remove them."
The temporary abolishment of censorship in 1848-1849 led to the sudden emergence of more than 30 newspapers. Two distinctive political movements appeared in Bohemia, the middle-of-the-road liberal democrats and the left-wing radicals. During the period of renewed absolutism in 1850-1860, it was especially the radicals who bore the brunt of fierce police repression. They were interned, imprisoned and exiled abroad.
After Austria was defeated by joint Sardinian-French forces at Magenta and Solferino in June 1859, Bach's absolutism fell and was discredited when it came out that some of its major figures had committed wholesale corruption. In October 1860, the Austrian Emperor published the "October Diploma", promising a constitution.
The December 1867 constitution guaranteed basic civic rights in Austria. Within limits, given mostly by the unequal electoral law, the Czechs could enjoy fundamental democratic freedoms between 1867 - 1914.The Austrian absolutist press law from May 1852 was replaced in December 1862 by a liberal law, which was modified in 1868 and 1894 was actually taken over after 1918 by the democratic Czechoslovak Republic (with further modifications in 1934 and 1935).
The 1867 constitution placed censorship within the responsibility of the provincial governors of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Articles were often confiscated, the publication of newspapers temporarily suspended and journalists imprisoned, mostly for short periods of time, for "subversion" and offences against public order. Nevertheless, the press law of 1862 was relatively liberal, giving the right to anyone to edit and publish books and periodicals, in line with current business legislation, although the premises where books and newspapers were to be sold had to be registered with the police.
An independent, democratic Czechoslovak Republic was founded in 1918, lasting until 1938-39, when it was destroyed by Hitler. Article 113 of the Czechoslovak Constitution from 1920 stated expressly that "the freedom of the press as well as the right to peaceful assembly is guaranteeed. This is why it is in principle impermissible to subject the press to preliminary censorship."
The citizens of the inter-war Czechoslovak Republic enjoyed extensive freedom of expression in all spheres of the human endeavour. Literature and the arts flourished in this period. After the accession of Hitler to power in Germany in 1933, Czechoslovakia gave political asylum to a number of German writers, including Thomas Mann. In 1930, a Czech translation of James Joyce's Ulysses by Ladislav Vymětal and Jarmila Fastrová was published in Prague six years before a complete and unexpurgated edition of the work could be printed in Britain. It was the third foreign language translation of Ulysses, after the publication of a French and a German translation in 1927.
With the appearance of political extremism, in 1923 Czechoslovakia promulgated a Law for the Protection of the Republic, which punished acts of subversion. On the basis of this law, the Czechoslovak authorities could suspend the publication of periodicals. The distribution of printed materials, subverting the constitutional integrity and the republican and democratic system of Czechoslovakia, as well as of materials of obscene nature could be banned. Until September 1938, the State Prosecutor's Office and the Press Department of the Czech government carried out censorship. Periodicals were confiscated after publication, on the basis of proposals by district authorities or by the police. Copies of periodicals with unacceptable articles were withdrawn from circulation. After confiscation a new, corrected edition could be printed. This usually included a blank space in place of the suppressed article with a note saying that the text had been officially prohibited.
After mobilisation in Czechoslovakia in September 1938, preliminary censorship was reintroduced and a Central Censorship Commission was set up by the government.
Two days after the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany on 15th March 1939, a new Central Press Service was set up as part of the Press Department of the Government Office. Its employees worked in the editorial offices of individual newspapers. Editors-in-chief received special instructions what line to take.The first three Czech heads of the government Press Department were arrested by the Nazis and were executed or died in concentration camps. The Press Department was to inspect new titles intended for publication. It also made lists of "harmful and undesirable literature and music". The most extensive lists of prohibited books in Germany and in Bohemia and Moravia were published on 30th September 1942 and 31st March 1944. They included some ten thousand book titles, periodicals and calendars. Most of the confiscated books were destroyed, but some Czech publishing houses masked precious books or bricked up storehouses where they were kept. After the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939, approximately one hundred feature films, Czechoslovak and foreign, including some German ones, were immediately banned.
From May 1945, technically no censorship existed in Czechoslovakia, but conflicts soon emerged between the individual political parties. There was a danger that the communist 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 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.
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.
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. Works by politically "unreliable" authors were prohibited. 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. 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. 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.
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 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.
It is extremely interesting to analyse media developments in the Czech Republic since the fall of communism. I would very much like to know to what extent the Czech situation might be paralleled in other post communist countries.
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.
There is no official censorship in the Czech Republic now, but there is very strong editorial self-censorship. There are probably many reasons for this. Some commentators argue that under communism, many Czech journalists collaborated openly with the regime and so after the fall of communism, in order to keep in their jobs, they had to switch sides and support the new authorities, in order to prove their democratic credentials.
I am not quite sure to what extent this explanation is generally valid. After, all, communism fell a decade ago and there are many young journalists.
Nevertheless, there are two more important factors. The 1970s and 1980s in Czechoslovakia have bred a culture of subjugation. This culture survives in a modified form, boosted by the fact that the Czechs see themselves as a small nation, incapable of acting independently in business and politics on the international scene.
An assertive, independent attitude is often seen as foolishness and eccentricity. Many Czechs prefer roundabout ways of achieving their aims. In this atmosphere, it is very difficult for the culture of bold, questioning journalism to take root, all the more so because journalistic independence is not properly guaranteed and most journalists are not paid very well.
It is well known that in the past Klaus's party ODS provided through the third parties regular payments to some journalists in return for favourable copy. But the most omnipresent form of corruption are the so-called information pacts between individual politicians and journalists. In return for exclusive information, journalists write one-sided, favourable articles about the politician or his party.
On the whole, a conventional general consensus reigns in the Czech media. They recycle existing ideas and are wary of independent thought and of systematic analysis which could undermine the received social and political conventions. Scandals that appear in the media, must be superficial, preferably revolving around the private lives of personalities. Assuming an independent attitude which might cast doubt on political or economic issues by subjecting them to a more profound analysis is regarded as dangerous and impermissible. The Czech media uncritically supported Vaclav Klaus's government policy throughout the first half of the 1990s, until his policies ended in an economic crisis. The media still uncritically support other issues, without analysis, such as recently the Czech Republic's entry into NATO, although approximately fifty per cent of the Czech population have been expressing reservations about the Czech Republic joining NATO.
An American journalist has recently witnessed the editorial practice of a leading Czech newspaper, Lidové noviny. It was explained to him by its editor in chief that there are certain names and issues that must never be mentioned in the newspaper, that there are names and issues which must be shown in a positive light and others which must be always shown in a negative light.
Daily newspapers will not criticise their big advertisers. There are some major firms in the Czech Republic which can influence government policy to their advantage. Since, however, these are also main advertisers, this is one of the issues that is never discussed. Journalists on staff of at least one important newspaper are being given lists of firms which must not be mentioned unfavourably in the paper.
An interesting taboo is imposed on the criticism of other media. Several Czech daily newspapers were privatised by asset stripping in the early 1990s. They were never part of the official privatisation programme, but were appropriated by groups or individuals working on the newspaper. Out of trade loyalty, they will not criticise other media, and the reason sometimes given is that the criticised parties might point to the somewhat shady privatisation these newspapers have undergone.
The most typical diet, served by newspapers, is exemplified by Mladá Fronta Dnes. Prague observer of the media Tomáš Pecina says: This paper is a very good example of journalistic stereotyping. Its articles are usually short, editorials are simple, without ambition, predictable and repetitive. The editors make sure that nothing may disrupt the conventional vision of the world in which the reader is confirmed over and over again. The reading of MFD cannot surprise - it is the direct opposite of intellectual adventure. MFD sends a stereotyped message to the reader every day: the reader is being assured that his views are the same as the views of the "majority", and so he is normal. It seems that the demand for this type of journalism is considerable in the Czech Republic - MFD has a high printrun and is profitable.
The virtual reality in the Czech media is supported by the fact that the Czech journalistic community is more or less a closed shop - the media will certainly not publish anything stimulation by an outsider. Too independent and too thoughtful writers will suffer from a publication ban.
To be critical of the mediocre consensus of the Czech journalists immediately means to be evicted from the community. This happened to Jana Bobošíková, the Czech equivalent of Jeremy Paxman - the popular moderator of the Czech equivalent of Newsnight. She openly criticised the situation in the news and current affairs department of Czech television in Britské listy, a Czech internet daily newspaper, was banned from appearing on the screen and has since disappeared from the Czech media scene.
The same thing has happened to Ivan Kytka, for many years the reporter of Czech television in London, who was appointed head of news and current affairs in television in April 1998. He tried to introduce practices of BBC journalism into Czech television, but lasted only five weeks in the post. He now works for the Czech service of the BBC. 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.