Czech protest said to rival those that helped overthrow communism

FROM WEEKLY
PRAGUE – A wild week in the bunker for rebel newsies at Czech Television culminated in a massive protest, a political promise and an emergency trip to the hospital for embattled general director Jiri Hodac, the man whose nomination to the post sparked the unrest.

Up to 130,000 Czechs packed Prague’s Wenceslas Square Jan. 3 to support the rebellious staff at the pubcaster, who accuse Hodac of political bias.

Eyewitnesses said the free media protest was the largest in Prague since demonstrations 11 years ago that helped overthrow communism.

Artists, political figures and dignitaries led the crowd in chants and speeches demanding freedom of expression and Hodac’s resignation.

There were wild cheers when several journalists, who have been barricaded in a Czech TV newsroom producing pirate newscasts since Dec. 23, appeared at the rally.

Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla overcame boos and jeers to reveal that the cabinet intended to bring politically independent members onto the nine-man Czech Television Council, the government-backed body that picked Hodac.

The rebels had been heartened earlier when a Prague court ruled against Hodac’s request that the journalists be barred from using the station equipment.

The next day, Hodac, facing growing pressure to quit as politicians decided to speed up a legal amendment that could end his rule within weeks, was rushed to hospital after suffering a breakdown doctors say was caused by exhaustion.

The protesting reporters claim Hodac is biased in favor of the coalition Civil Democrats (ODS)/Social Democrats government, an allegation he denies.

The Intl. Federation of Journalists is supporting the staff, which is backed by president Vaclav Havel, and appealed to the European Commission to investigate.

But the commission played down the dispute convulsing the Czech Republic, saying it was sure democracy would prevail in a country that hoped to join the European Union in 2003.

“We are confident that Czech democracy, which has demonstrated its vitality in the past, will find the resources to overcome and settle this issue,” said commission spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori.

- Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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