Getting Off the Party Line

While the Communist Party ruled Czechoslovakia, the BBC and the Voice of America gave the people an idea of what was really going on. Democracy, however, expects a society to inform itself. The Czechoslovak press today is volatile–150 new magazines and newspapers materialized in just the first three months of this year, as titles like Life of the Party and People’s Militia vanished–but it’s also tendentious and amateurish.

Presenting ourself as a journalist from Chicago eager to carry a wish list back to various media powers that be, we frequently asked the question: “What do you need?”

“What do we need?” mused Jana Rislingova, gazing out the window. A mathematician, Rislingova is for the time being press officer of Civic Forum, the citizens’ movement that became the political party favored to carry Friday’s parliamentary elections. She mentioned the shortages of equipment and newsprint, the lack of printing presses uncontrolled by the Communist Party. Then she stopped being perfunctory.

“We lived in a certain kind of society,” she said. “It had absolute power over what was taught to students, including students of journalism. It went on for 40 years. What we really would need is to teach the profession of journalism to students. The teachers are mostly from the old structure–the good ones are exceptions.

“The help we would appreciate is to have our students go abroad to places where good journalism schools exist. It is not a question of hundreds or thousands of journalists but one here, two there–they will make the basis of the future journalism. In each university, have one grant for a Czech student. It doesn’t seem impossible. Send your offers to Charles University. You will have one, three, five students–as many as you can take.”

Most reporters who seek her out at Civic Forum are foreigners, Rislingova told us. “The Czech journalists should come but they don’t. There is something missing in their spirit. They are used to going to the press conference, but that is it. The most important thing they were taught was, you have to listen, you have to be obedient.”

As dean of the journalism faculty at Prague’s Charles University, Cestmir Suchy must now educate the next generation of Czech journalists. He’s not sure how he’ll do it. Courses like “Propaganda and Agitation,” “Contemporary Policy of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia,” and “International Workers Movement” disappeared overnight. A faculty committee is still trying to put together a new curriculum. They need to hear from American educators about their own.

Suchy concedes that Czechoslovakia is in desperate need of reporters who know how to report. The socialist tradition, he said, was not to inform the reader but to educate him. To tell him what to think? we asked. “Yes,” said the dean. “Now we try to drop the old habits, but it is not easy.”

The new papers are all organs of political parties or movements, and everybody wants to be an essayist. We asked Suchy about Lidove Noviny, which began as samizdat, emerged from underground as a biweekly, and started publishing daily in April. Its courage and idealism have earned Lidove Noviny the sort of esteem enjoyed by President Havel. But like Havel, it now has to deliver. “It’s not well made,” Suchy told us. “People say it’s like a weekly published every day. The quality of the commentary is very high. But they are not thinking about the normal people in the street. They don’t have enough daily news that makes a newspaper a newspaper.”

(This is a common complaint about Lidove Noviny. In its defense, Jaroslav Veis, a writer there, told us his paper and four other dailies are printed at night by Rude Pravo, the CP paper, which gives itself the last press run and thus corners the latest news. That said, he conceded the larger point. “The expressive role of Lidove Noviny is opinion–of our culture, of our political life,” Veis said. “We hope to be a second daily for independent thinkers, like Le Monde.” When we asked Veis what his paper needs, he said professional training. He’d like to see some of its top editors intern at American newspapers for a month or two.)

In 1968, Cestmir Suchy was foreign editor of Radio Prague. When he failed to construe the Soviet invasion as a glowing hour of fraternity he was busted to the news desk, then expelled from the Communist Party and fired. He got a factory job, at one point spent a few days in jail, and wound up washing windows.

Last November, with the Communist regime under attack, the Charles University journalism students got busy. Many fanned out into nearby towns and villages to distribute leaflets denouncing the government. Others helped Civic Forum put out a news bulletin. Students occupied the journalism school, slept there, and set up a press center.

The school never returned to normal. When the CP fell, the student body blacklisted the old dean and 13 of the 40 journalism teachers as Soviet toadies. They were swept away. The nation’s intelligentsia began to drift back from careers as stokers and window washers, and Suchy turned down two job offers at Radio Prague; in his late 50s, he felt he was past his prime. But a friend convinced him to apply for the job of dean. “Let destiny decide,” Suchy told himself; he was just one of several candidates. In February, the job became his.

Tell us about your arrest, we said. “It was a time when practically everybody went to jail,” he explained. “They found I’d attended a meeting and we had talk, dangerous talk, against the government.” Suchy was accused of agitation, but was released when only one witness against him could be found.

Who was that? we asked. “I don’t want to say,” said the dean. “He didn’t do it on purpose. He wasn’t strong enough. I was a man for all the weathers. He wasn’t. But he was a good chap.”

Red All Over

Prague’s best newspaper? Probably it’s the one that owns the presses–Rude Pravo (“The Truth”). “They know what they want, and they do it pretty well,” said Jana Rislingova. “They want to make an impression that the Communist Party is a nice and kind grandfather that wants the best for his children, and if he is accused of being not so nice 40 years ago–well, now they have changed.”

“It may be the best in the country, still, for true information,” Jaroslav Veis told us. “It has the largest circulation–700,000. The most modern facilities. They still have some correspondents abroad, an experienced staff. They have three people covering parliament. The others have only one.”

We visited the plush, high-rise quarters of Rude Pravo–which are to the offices of Lidove Noviny as polyester is to burlap–and met its new editor. Given how roundly the Communist Party has been repudiated, we asked Zdenek Porybny, why is Rude Pravo still widely read? Two reasons, he replied.

“One. A great many members of the Communist Party are left who want to read a paper that’s not spitting on the Communists all the time. Two. Since I got in charge we established–through all sorts of opposition from everywhere, including old people in the Party who wanted us to kick hell out of Vaclav Havel and defend the indefensible–to be a good, honest paper. The other papers try to serve their own parties much more than I would ever do.”

Porybny dutifully recants. “Maybe I was lucky–I was always on the foreign news desk–we tried to do honest reporting of the world. But I don’t try to escape my responsibility. Our basic attitude was to work for change within the existing structure, hoping good would prevail. History proves us wrong. History proves right those who called for radical changes.”

History was slow to persuade him. But in mid-December, nearly a month after the student demonstration that ignited Prague, a few days after Gustav Husak resigned as president, Porybny bent to the prevailing wind. He wrote a letter protesting his paper’s preposterous interpretation of these historic weeks, took it from desk to desk, and collected a page full of signatures. His letter was endorsed, 91 to 4, at a staff meeting, and the editor resigned. Rude Pravo promised its readers a new day. “We formulated the reasons why we failed in our journalistic duties,” Porybny told us. “We said the reasons are multiple, but the most important is the wrong conception of Party discipline, which radically changed our editorial work into submission to outside pressure and into taking orders even if we don’t agree with them.”

Porybny, the deputy editor, was a fresh face around the paper. Though he’d worked there 18 years, he’d returned from duty in the United States only in September. He became acting editor immediately, and three weeks later the CP’s editorial board gave him the top job.

He writes occasionally. When a Prague judge sent the CP a letter citing a law against propagation of fascist ideas and threatening to charge the Party with being a criminal organization, Porybny composed a “small commentary” in response.

“You can’t say the Communist Party is fascist because it’s much more complicated,” he told us. “Look, many of today’s leaders of Civic Forum were in the Communist Party. This is a very small country. Everyone was involved one way or another. If you charge all of them, you’ll have half the population in prison.”

Do you feel a moral responsibility for the harm the CP did to Czechoslovakia? we asked Porybny.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m asking myself the same question. I never thought Havel should go to prison [which Havel did, from 1979 to 1983], but I never signed a paper calling for his release.”

Does Rude Pravo support Havel now? we asked.

“This is a tough question. . . . We don’t want a weak president. He has tremendous moral credit.”

“With the CP?” we asked.

“What is the Communist Party? You use the same flat language as the Prague judge,” Porybny complained. “Many members of the Communist Party hate him. Others share his worldviews. He’s a democrat, and this country needs democrats like Havel.”

Now what?

“The strategy is to be a good, honest, well-done newspaper with a definite left-wing attitude but its own right to formulate positions on everything, including the Communist Party. The Communist Party owns us financially, but they don’t own our brains. . . . The journalists working for this paper are free for the first time.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Miner.