This first ran in Central Europe Review on 13 September 1999. This wasn't the first time I wrote about how the Internet was occupying the position in Czech society that samizdat once did, but it's one of the earliest I can now find online. There's some kind of irony in that, I realise...
Independent media are essential for democracy. Citizens need access to information from the widest possible sources, and journalists must investigate matters and report them intelligently, so that society can make informed decisions. Freedom of information and professional journalists are even more important for a country shaking off the fetters of totalitarian rule.
Unfortunately, the media in the Czech Republic often do not fulfil this lofty role. There is a wide variety of themes which the mass media refuses to discuss, and journalists often serve only as mouthpieces for political parties, dutifully reporting the latest "leaks" from "unnamed sources" which are rarely more than an attack by party A against party B.
Outright censorship is a thing of the past, but still, there are numerous topics that are taboo for the Czech mass media. Openly questioning the value of Czech entry into NATO and even asking how much it might cost the country were forbidden subjects, almost never appearing in the mass media in the run-up to membership. A newspaper's advertisers are also off-limits. A few of my personal experiences in the Czech media have been disturbingly enlightening.
I recall one conversation with an editor of a large-circulation daily newspaper. He told me the list of topics he and his colleagues at the paper could not write about. "The list is not written down, of course, but we all know, for example, not to criticise the newspaper's advertisers or the Social Democratic government," he told me.
"I remember once," he continued, "when we had a great story about corruption at Sazka (the lottery and sports betting giant in the Czech Republic). We had the great pile of evidence and were about to go to press with it. The only thing we needed was a response from Sazka itself – some kind of official reaction. So, we got an appointment with one of the higher-ups there, and of course, he denied everything. But at least we had our story, and we had given them a chance to react. That afternoon, however, a fax came into the editorial office. All that was written on it were a few figures and at the top was written 'largest advertisers for this newspaper.' Sazka was number two on the list. That was all it took: the story didn't run."
Media self-criticism and media analysis are also prohibited by silent, mutual agreement.
An editor from another daily newspaper asked me to write articles for them on a freelance basis, and we met one day for coffee to discuss the details. "You can write about whatever you want," he said, "except..." and then proceeded to give me a list of forbidden topics.
"Can I write about that list?" I asked naturally.
"Well, I don't think that would be such a good idea," he said.
"That's too bad. It's a shame that every paper here has such a list. And that no one can even talk about the lists. You know it's wrong just as much as I do. This self-censorship should be publicly addressed."
"I agree," said the editor. And then he thought for a moment and said, "Perhaps we can address it. Perhaps if you wrote something delicate and indirect, we could get it printed. It would be useful."
And so, I wrote a delicately worded piece to deliberately get it past this editor's editor-in-chief. It worked, and the article appeared in the paper. But it was so coded that I wonder if anyone really understood its meaning. The disappearance of totalitarianism seemed rather illusory to me that weekend.
Television has been of particular interest since the advent of Nova Television, Central Europe's only profit-making, private television station, in 1994. Nova's infotainment approach to the news was oftentimes most remarkable, surpassing in vulgarity, sensationalism and banality even late-night cable television in the United States. 1998 witnessed an attempt to reform Czech (public service) Television's newsroom by running it along the lines of the BBC's world-class news in Britain, but that reform project failed.
With the traditional media so restricted, the Internet has blossomed in the Czech Republic. In a sense, the Internet has become the new samizdat. The Internet is an exclusive way of disseminate information, and although it is restricted to a limited number of people, it is extremely influential.
Like samizdat, the Internet is limited in circulation primarily to the more educated Czechs. Based on the readership of the Czech electronic dailies, one can clearly see that students and managers make up most of the Net's Czech following. Like samizdat, the Internet does not reach the ordinary man in the street much. Also like the samizdat of the 1970s and 1980s, the Internet is rather geographically limited as well and conforms to the Czech urban/rural divide that is familiar in other issue.
All this is not to say that the Internet is not influential in the Czech Republic. Analysing the client domains of the readers, we know, for example, that the Castle, all the ministries and both houses of Parliament are reading the Czech Internet dailies Neviditelny pes and Britske listy. Of course, samizdat similarly reached the elites. The Czechoslovak authorities in the 1970s and 1980s worried about its influence a great deal: after all, they thought it important enough to spend millions of Crowns and man-hours hunting it down and prosecuting those responsible for it.
The Internet thus occupies the position in society that samizdat once did. It is an influential and important source of information to which only a few have access. Quite obviously, there is one crucial difference: the Internet is legal.
In the modern case, inaccessibility of information is not due to legal restrictions and persecution but to financial inequalities. In the 1970s and 1980s, the samizdat network was prevented from reaching the wider public because of the paranoid vigilance of the authorities. Today, the eclectic and non-establishment views found on the Internet do not reach the wider public because of a lack of money: the equipment to hook up to the Web is relatively expensive for a private individual in the Czech Republic.
There are two societies living side by side. The one is connected to alternative sources of information, and the other is left out.
To date, there has been no government initiative to get all Czech schools and libraries hooked up to the Internet. Critics say the country is too poor, but Estonia made just such a declaration years ago and is now completing its goal. Until Czech society makes that kind of commitment, the Internet will retain its elite, samizdat status.