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Czech Public Supports Journalists

December 29, 2000

PRAGUE, Czech Republic (AP) _ Broadcast journalists, sustained by gift baskets of fruit and bread from supporters, remained barricaded inside the Czech television building Friday in what they called a stand for freedom of the press.

Journalists angry over the parliamentary appointment of Jiri Hodac as the new chief of television have refused to leave until Hodac is dismissed. They rejected Jiri Hodac, an ally of former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, as politically biased and sympathetic to Klaus.

``We are not here to fight,″ said Adam Komers, one of the leaders of the rebellion. ``We are here to defend the freedom of speech.″

Meanwhile, the government is losing the public relations battle: Czechs are siding with the strikers. A survey published Friday found that 81 percent of 381 people questioned by the Median agency supported the dissident news staff. The margin of error was 5 percent.

Thousands gather each night outside the studio to watch the news on giant screens. Hodac’s supporters have cut transmission of the newscasts.

``Their support is fantastic. After the news, we go to thank them,″ said anchorwoman Jolana Voldanova. ``They say: `We are on your side. Don’t give up.‴

Czechs seem to back the journalists’ argument that public television belongs to the public _ not political parties. ``We had to come and see this. I think the politicians are interfering too much,″ said Hana Novotna, 53, who came to watch with her husband Friday.

The problem began just before Christmas with the appointment of Hodac, who was supported by the country’s two largest parties, including Klaus’ Civic Democratic Party.

But the Czech TV newsroom is largely staffed by young reporters who back Klaus’ archrival, President Vaclav Havel. They balked at working for a director close to Klaus.

Nine days ago, the reporters sat down at their computers, took off their shoes and pledged to stay until Hodac leaves. Some politicians have joined them, bringing their own sleeping bags.

``We are not a bunch of mutineers,″ insisted Zdenek Velisek, a senior reporter.

But the rebellious journalists claim they have changed the password to Hodac’s computer and have barred the doors to his editing team. They said they feared police might evict them, but the Interior Ministry said it would do no such thing.

Hodac warned late Thursday that he would ``undertake appropriate legal steps″ to end the protest. He spent seven hours speaking with police Friday, the CTK news agency said, but police said they would only intervene if the public’s safety was at risk.

``We have no reasons to interfere,″ police spokeswoman Ivana Zelenakova said.

Stragglers from the crowd were welcomed into the newsroom. Some have offered cookies, a kind word or a bottle of vitamins.

``We feel tired,″ said reporter Marek Vitek. ``But the support of people, who come here every day to support us, call and ask us to keep on going, keeps us going,″

Journalism organizations at home and abroad also have issued statements of solidarity. Even the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has sided with the strikers.

But some believe the dispute has less to do with free speech than with an ongoing political power struggle between Havel and Klaus.

``There is no threat to the freedom of speech here,″ political analyst Vaclav Zak said. ``The employees are worried about their jobs.″

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