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Media Reform Bill Deserves Support

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
04.14.1999 | MEDIA

The media reform bill up for vote in the Czech Parliament this spring is a hornet's nest of issues, each of which promises to influence Czech society far beyond the bill's pragmatic role as just another EU requirement.

Among the proposed reforms, perhaps the most profound—and contentious—is a content quota that would halve the amount of foreign (i.e. American) programming on Czech television. Naturally this has drawn the ire and resistance of cable channels that profit from majority American programming. Predictably, the executives of these stations have thrown up the argument that they are "just giving the people what they want" and that any infringement on programming is undemocratic. Washington, a longtime enforcer of the misnamed "free flow of information" doctrine, has historically denounced such restrictions with language remarkably similar to that used by Great Britain immediately preceding its Opium Wars with China.

The cases being made against the quota, despite the occasional window dressing of democratic theory, are essentially economic. Entertainment is America's most lucrative export, and there are Czechs and Americans profiting handsomely from filling Czech airwaves with it. Europe, for its part, also no doubt has an interest in protecting its own entertainment industry from the Hollywood behemoth. But crude economic calculus does not suffice to explain Europe's drafting of this law, one that might be called the Cultural Strategic Defense Initiative.

The law, upon which the Czech bill is based, constitutes a far-reaching and explicit attempt to curtail the influence of American culture. While this may seem like administering medicine to the dead, there are in fact still a few things worth saving on this continent—among them the remnants of national language, culture, and standards. Insofar as a sovereign state has the right and the duty to protect these things, the content quota deserves support. Just as governments have an obligation to maintain clean drinking water and keep Crack cocaine out of the local pharmacy, so too is it obligated to exert some measure of control over the channels of mass media. These channels, after all, are liscenced by the state and chartered on the condition of serving the public interest.

In America, we have long forgotten this fundamental fact. The result is a bandwidth controlled by a handful of Networks who themselves are controlled by military contractors such as Westinghouse and GE. The public taste is in a degraded state and serious coverage of world events is all but nonexistent. In the hyper-unregulated world of American media, the one under-funded public station, CPB—jokingly referred to by its own employees as the Petroleum Broadcasting Corporation—is forced to court advertisers and is swamped beneath literally hundreds of channels devoted to shopping, chatter, violence, and endless vapidity.

Unless the amount of American content is controlled, it is likely that one day both of the excellent Czech public stations will be similarly swamped. For the danger posed by unregulated American penetration of foreign media markets rests not only in the quality, but also in the sheer volume of product. No other country produces and exports anything near so much crap, and this is precisely why it is being singled out and challenged. (There is also the propagandistic element in many American shows rightly objected to by Europe, but that is another article.)

There is of course no guarantee that European programming will raise the bar in any significant way (cf. Nova's Czech shows), but it is unlikely that it will ever exist in such quantity as to drown out public television and totally fracture the culture. Moreover, the less Spelling and Murdoch allowed on foreign networks, the less native programmers will be forced to compete on that level; and should local Murdochs arise, as they surely will, then at least let them be subject to some degree of public control. For this control to exist, however, there must be an interface between the public, the ownership of media, and the State. Under the current laws there is none.

Should the bill pass, it will be an important step not only towards admission into the EU, but also towards a more progressive media regime in the Czech Republic. While hardly a panacea for the larger issues of concentration of ownership or standards, its components—regionalism, transparency, accountability—constitute a belated yet bold proclamation that European airwaves hold a potential beyond that of an open, mindless and colonial market.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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