Gov’t Czechs b’cast council

Prime minister tries axing TV board over CME

PRAGUE — Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla has fired the Broadcasting Council for conspiring to oust U.S.-backed Central European Media Enterprises (CME) from commercial broadcaster Nova TV, which is set to cost the Czech Republic $355 million in damages.

But defiant council members said they’re not going because of technicalities over how the decision was made.

This board flap is the latest salvo in the long-running battle that began in 1999 when Nova director general Vladimir Zelezny ousted CME from the lucrative broadcaster. Zelezny, elected to the Czech Senate last fall, is under investigation for charges of fraud and tax evasion.

Parliament is split along party lines — Spidla’s ruling left-of-center coalition supports Culture Minister Pavel Dostal’s decision while the opposition partnership of communists and the right-wing party of Czech President Vaclav Klaus is backing the council.

Meanwhile, the local media is slinging accusations of complicity between the council and Klaus’ party, and anger is building at the size of the award that will come out of the taxpayers’ purse. Petitions have begun circulating demanding that Nova and Zelezny pay the award, and a boycott of the station is being pushed.

The court judgment has increased this year’s budget gap at a time when the Czechs are reeling from August’s devastating floods.

Some argue that axing the council is an admission of guilt while a court is still considering the Czech Republic’s challenge to the March verdict. It is due to rule May 15.

However, even if the council is disbanded, some of the members could be back. The seats are political appointments, with each party proposing members.

After an agreement with CME, the Czech finance ministry has transferred $355 million to a Swedish escrow account, avoiding mounting interest fees of $75,000 daily.

The money will be either transferred to CME or returned to the Czech Republic pending the appeal decision.

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