State broadcasters and politicians are silencing debate on a key issue
To what extent should a platform be given to those unhappy about support for Ukraine and sanctions on Russia? This question loomed over Central Europe at the weekend following controversies at Czech and Slovak public broadcasters during a holiday to commemorate the start of the Velvet Revolution, when then-Czechoslovakia rid itself of Communist rule.
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Heads rolled at Slovakia’s public television and radio broadcaster RTVS after the airing of a speech by the Leader of the Opposition Robert Fico, who has been a critic of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russia sanctions since the war in Ukraine began. Kyiv this summer put him on its blacklist of “disinformation” spreaders, to which he retorted:
Fico’s views are not fringe. A recent academic study suggested that over half of Slovaks want Russia to defeat Ukraine, with 20% wanting a “clear victory” for the Kremlin.
This presents serious difficulties for Slovakia’s pro-Ukraine political and media establishment, and the sackings at RTVS showed a continued inability to deal with conflicting views in wider society. The director of RTVS claimed staff broke impartiality rules by airing Fico’s speech — but it’s a strange kind of impartiality when merely presenting the views of the Leader of the Opposition is deemed unacceptable.
The media doesn’t seem to trust the public to make up their own minds, so it’s no surprise that Slovaks distrust the media in return. Those with views contrary to established narratives on issues from Covid to Ukraine have had such little representation that many have taken their news consumption online, now preferring to trust “citizen journalism” on social media.
Something similar is happening across the border in the Czech Republic. A protest movement called “Czech Republic First” has held rallies attracting tens of thousands of people in Prague, calling for the resignation of the government and a reversal of the country’s stance on Ukraine. Here, too, the national holiday opened up a free speech controversy.
Ladislav Vrabel, the leader of Czech Republic First, protested with thousands of followers outside the studios of the national television broadcaster, demanding ten minutes’ airtime to present his views. As with Fico in Slovakia, Vrabel’s stance on Ukraine – calling for an end to Russia sanctions and non-interventionism in the war – is a reflection of strong currents of popular opinion, but the public broadcaster refused to give him a platform.
Of course, setting a TV schedule is the broadcaster’s prerogative. But as some Czech commentators have pointed out, such power comes with the responsibility to present opposing views — especially those already prevalent in society — and let them stand or fall on their own merits. Far from being a fringe view, opposition to Western involvement in the war has become a major strand of public opinion across central Europe, from Hungary’s well-established anti-sanction stance, to growing support for similar political movements in Austria, and frequent rallies against Ukraine policy in eastern Germany. Trying to shut down these voices only causes resentment to fester.
As they commemorate their victory over Communist totalitarianism, the Czech Republic and Slovakia should know that when the media no-platforms dissent, it shows democracy in a poor state of health. The debate isn’t about the rectitude of the Ukrainian cause; it’s about whether or not Czechs, Slovaks and others can be trusted to make up their own minds about the choices being made by their politicians.