Largest in more than decade, eyewitnesses say

PRAGUE — Tens of thousands of Czechs packed Prague’s Wenceslas Square Wednesday to support the rebellious staff at pubcaster Czech Television, locked in battle against a new boss they accuse of political bias.

Organizers and media put the crowd at between 60,000 and 130,000. There were no police estimates.

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

Artists, political figures and dignitaries led the crowd in chants and speeches demanding freedom of expression and the resignation of pubcaster director general Jiri Hodac.

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 had approved an amendment to bring politically independent members on to the nine-man Czech Television Council, the government-backed body that picked Hodac.

Parliament will hold an emergency meeting tomorrow to consider the measure and may even dissolve the present council. But Spidla offered no immediate solution to the stand-off.

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

Earlier in the day, a Prague court ruled against Hodac’s request that the journalists be barred from using the station equipment.

The International Federation of Journalists is supporting the staff and appealed to the European Commission, which said it would look into the issue. The Czech Republic hopes to join the European Union by 2003.

Czech President Vaclav Havel has backed the rebels, saying Hodac’s appointment is “against the spirit of the law.”

An opinion poll last week showed 89% of Czechs wanted Hodac to go.

(Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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