Czech TV´s management ordered news reporters to depict refugees as a threat

In September 2015, the management of the influential Czech commercial TV Prima, gave clear instructions to reporters to depict refugees negatively in their news coverage. Those who did not agree with this position were told to leave their jobs.

Photo: Erwin Verbruggen

Thank to months of work, we gained information and evidence confirming that TV Prima´s management and Editor-in-Chief have been asserting pressure on their news reporters to thematically present refugees as a threat and a problem, and the drivers of a potential long-term crisis.

The decision to re-frame the refugee crisis was not only made by the news Editor-in-Chief, Jitka Obzinová, but also by the deputy to the owner, the Vice Chairman of FTV Prima Holding’s Board of Directors, Luboš Jetmar.

The threat, problem, crisis

What happened inside TV Prima, an influential Czech TV station, ranking third (at about 23%) in viewership for the 15+ age group in the Czech Republic?

We spoke with several members of TV Prima´s editorial staff who were at the meeting in September and have also been fulfilling the instructions given at the meeting. All those quoted spoke with us under the condition of anonymity, fearing possible revenge from the TV´s management.

“The atmosphere inside the editorial staff is very tense. Most of the editors realize that there are not many jobs to go around, so they stick to the given instructions and accept the conditions of their work. Resistance has not been accepted,” said one source.

Jitka Obzinová and Luboš Jetmar convened an extraordinary meeting on September 7, 2015. Initially they spoke to the broader editorial staff, and then they moved to the second floor to have a more specific meeting with the editors and news reporters who have been reporting on refugees.

The message imparted in the first part of the meeting was unambiguous – reporters were to adopt a clear position on the refugee crisis – they must represent the refugees as a present danger and Islamization as something that should be feared, while clearly expressing that refugees were not welcome in the Czech Republic. It was also stated that editors and news reporters must identify with this position, and those who would not accept it, would no longer be needed on the editorial staff of TV Prima anymore.

Instructions, voiced during the second part of the meeting were more specific. Some of the journalists objected, arguing that the orders contradicted the journalistic codex, but they were dismissed by the management, who said that objectivity, balancing or journalistic codex would not be discussed for the next several months. When the meeting was over, one of TV Prima´s news reporters resigned, and another left in Spring 2016 due to this “migration instruction”.

According to our sources from TV Prima, it was the report about the potential health risks connected with the arrival of refugees that sparked differences among news reporters and editors, and prompted the meeting that was to outline clear rules on how refugees were to be presented. At the end of August 2015, a news reporter came to the conclusion that there was no risk of contagions. TV Prima’s news anchor introduced the story in a similar way: “There have been opinions that refugees who come through the Czech Republic may constitute a risk of infection by contagious diseases (…) But Daniela Klívarova [the news reporter in question] discovered that the official numbers reported by the Ministry of the Interior, speak to the opposite.”

The editorial team also changed the respondents it featured. More space was given to commentators like political scientist Petr Robejšek, 1 or attorney Klára Samková. 2 One of the TV station sources explains: “It is more or less the rule – those who share our anti-refugee position, will be given space. Therefore bizarre people from the Parlamentní listy 3 or politicians from Dawn 4 or the Okamura´s circle 5 began presenting their views on the news reports.”

The recording

The key evidence of our discovery is a secret recording of the September 7, 2015 meeting. Because TV Prima is a station that highly influences public opinion, we know that releasing this record is in the public’s interest. The recording confirms that TV Prima’s coverage of the refugee crisis has not been conducted according to journalistic standards or the journalistic ethical code that TV Prima adopted. Instead, the station ordered editors and news reporters to coalesce to the opinions of the TV station´s management in their coverage of the refugee crisis.

The recording, which has been authenticated, was secretly made by one of the meeting´s participants, and we obtained it promising conditions of anonymity. That the meeting did take place, was independently confirmed by several of its participants.

We offer you some key excerpts:

Jitka Obzinová, the news Editor-in-Chief:

  • “The reason I convened all of you is to discuss the topic of the refugee crisis. As you know, this situation has developed into a real crisis during several months. Firstly, we need to determine our position on it, and secondly, to stick to this position somehow.”
  • “I think you know that there has been a hierarchy in place. I think this hierarchy has always been well ingrained, and news reporters and redactors know they must obey the head of the daily edition’s orders. The head of the daily edition is God, and you do not talk back to God. Those who won´t accept the head of the daily edition’s orders, do not need to work here. This is the only possible way.”
  • “We are all employed here; we have an employer that occupies a certain position. If I accept it, and if the head of the daily edition accepts it, then you must simply obey these directions (…). If this is not the case, then it means you do not accept the fact that you are employed here.”
  • “Honestly said, we have experienced neither WW2, nor 1968. We have not experienced a conflict, which would be similar to a conflict such as the establishment of the State of Israel, where the public has been searching for a position for a very long period of time.”
  • “Now the refugee crisis has been growing to such parameters, and it has become clear that society, media and individual media must take a position. And where our television station is concerned, it also wants to have a position. So I have to draw a general line – it will need to be accepted.”
  • “I would like to repeat once again that the management’s position is the determining factor. Those are the rules and it would help that we all revive the rules again. The head of the daily edition accepts this position, the news reporters accept the head of the daily edition’s directions, and they do not project their own private opinions into broadcasting, right? This is the most important thing we wanted to tell you.”

Luboš Jetmar, the Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of FTV Prima Holding:

  • “I came here to talk to you about it. We agreed with Jitka that we would distribute an article you should read. 6 I think that it is excellently written and positively describes something that could be the beginning of the end. I am aware or we are aware of one thing. You work in the news coverage of a television station that is a rather strong, influential medium, and we influence the majority opinion in this country.”
  • “We have a situation here, and when we look at the polls, the majority opinion is probably as it is, but of course, there are people among us who are proud of the fact that they have a different opinion from the majority one. I am not contending with this opinion; I am, myself, a humanist as well.”
  • “But I do not know who of you have ever lived in an Arab country. I have. When you experience it firsthand, you realize that you can speak about our values, democracy and similar things, as long as you want, but because their development was different –and together with thousands of years of gender and tribal traditions, their position on male and female gender is completely different. They simply do not understand what we are saying to them. Either they do not understand or do not want to understand. (…) And now I speak from my personal experience and from the interviews we held there. They primarily insist that their values are right.”
  • “What is now happening… in Libya, there are one million refugees waiting for someone to transport them to Europe. The moment they get here, and there will be many of them, they will have a tendency to really, really push their truth, their perception of the world, their religion, their rules.”
  • “Honestly said, I do not know if anyone of you would like to live in that moment. I do not know how old your kids are, but I have a nine-year-old girl. In 20 years, I would not want her when she’s in her 30s, to be forced to walk in a burqa and have no rights at all. Really no.”
  • “Of course, I am aware of the fact that these refugees are victims and we should help them. But on the other hand, what is in this article, is true as well. The state is not fulfilling its duty, the state that is here to defend our borders. And the EU should be doing this now and defending Schengen.”
  • “But we are simply afraid that this will grow into a much bigger problem than we are aware of now. Only several hundred thousand of them, maybe a million, are now here, I do not know, but at that moment many more arrive, they won´t simply respect our rules anymore.”
  • “You know well that when you travel to Saudi Arabia, there is no chance for you to walk outside without your face being veiled. They will push for this here. (…) I would like it if we, as a television station, form an opinion about this and then respect this opinion.”

The historical lesson

Jitka Obzinová and Luboš Jetmar also based their decision on how Prima news should portray the refugees on the daily commentary of historian and writer, Vlastimil Vondruška. 7 He said that, “Christian Europe has been fighting with the Islamic Near East for at least one thousand years,” and now “we are losing this war, which by the way, is absolutely fatal; and we will face the consequences. The Islamists have used our own weapons against us.”

Those terrible weapons are “human rights,” writes Vondruška, offering a historic parallel with the Roman empire: “During ancient times, the Romans built up Limes Romanus against the Germans and fended off the German fighters’ invasions for several generations. But then the Germans changed their tactics. They managed to overcome the Limes not as warriors, but as people who wanted to live in Roman territory. The Romans objected at first, but how could they kill the German families with children when they were coming in peace? The German exodus to the Roman territory continued because it was better to live there, than in barbarian-controlled territory. Finally, the Romans gave in to this people´s thrust and left the Limes. This was the end of the ancient Rome.”

According to Vondruška, the adherents of Islam prepared exactly the same for us: “We have left our Limes, opened the borders of Europe, and ceased doing what every regularly functioning state does, and this is protect the integrity and sovereignty of the country and its citizens.”

“Of course, we can talk about human solidarity, humanism and I do not know what, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” says the author of the article that inspired TV Prima management’s newsroom instruction on how best to frame the refugee crisis.

“Refugees are of course ordinary pawns, who are not to blame and who definitely suffer from all this but the struggle for power is not about justice and mercy. And the truth is that we unleashed all this,” wrote Vlastimil Vondruška.

The reaction

We have reached out to TV Prima for comment on three separate occasions, but have not received an answer. Prima’s spokesperson only publically reacted on May 31st: “We do not comment on speculations, and we won´t in this case as well.” 8 Later in the evening of May 31st only after the release of the meeting’s audio recording, and the re-publishing of this information by other media, did TV Prima release this statement:

“TV Prima’s news coverage applies an editorial approach, based on the independent depiction of events. The goal of the editorial meeting on September 7, 2015, was to set a consistent editorial approach and a comprehensible representation of the ongoing refugee issue for viewers. Various opinions were voiced in this meeting during a standard discussion. Luboš Jetmar, FTV Prima’s Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors, was invited by the Editor-in-Chief, Jitka Obzinová, only as someone who has had personal experience with life in the Arab world. After this meeting, TV Prima´s news coverage and editorial work, including the refugee topic, has continued. Our balance in reporting was even confirmed by the RRTV, in its monitoring and analysis report, released on December 15, 2015. (…) The TV Prima news will continue to independently inform society about the refugee crisis and other key problems.”

One of FTV Prima Holding’s shareholders is the Swedish media group, MTG. We have also asked them to what extent Jitka Obzinová and Luboš Jetmar’s position corresponds with the Swedish owner’s opinions. The media group’s spokesperson, Jessica Sjöberg, responded: “MTG has clear standards and a policy concerning the independence and objectivity of information based on facts, and this applies to all companies within the group. We are now dialoguing with the local management of TV Prima in order to better understand the events and the topics you are covering. At this moment, we have no other commentary.”

The content analysis

TV Prima adheres to the Ethical Code of the Association of TV Organizations. It states that “…unbiased information is such information that is true; meaning that it is such a depiction of reality, during which the news reporter, according to his or her best conscience, uses all accessible information that, at the time of the news broadcast, is at his or her disposal.”

The law also requires those who run TV stations or radios to be unbiased and balanced. The Broadcasting Act directs: “Those who broadcast (the news) must provide unbiased and balanced information necessary for the free creation of opinions. Opinion and commentary must be separate from news information.” The news coverage of commercial TV stations should be objective and balanced and “…opinion or commentary must be separate from information with a news character.”

Based on the information discovered about September´s meeting, we undertook a content analysis of FTV Prima´s NEWS, comparing August and September 2015. The change in the tone of the news coverage is apparent. During the first period, from August 1st to September 7th, the ratio between positive, neutral and negative news was 9%, 53% and 27%, respectively. In the second period, from September 7th to September 30th, the character of its news coverage had changed, with 0% positive, 27.6% neutral and 72.4% negative.

The coverage began to significantly highlight the threats and stereotypes more: refugees were “wealthy,” illustrated by pictures of refugees with smartphones; they did not appreciate hospitality; they left messes behind them, etc. Our analysis also found that the amount of featured commentary within the news broadcasts grew, and the choice of respondents, focus and tone of the news changed as well.

The regulator´s response

The Czech broadcasting authority, the Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting (Rada pro rozhlasové a televizní vysílání, RRTV) came to similar conclusions in its commissioned analysis of TV Prima’s coverage of the refugee crisis, between August 24th and September 13th 2015. They concluded that, that the station’s coverage generally portrayed migration as having escalated (“The refugee crisis grows stronger”) on such an enormous scale, that a “crisis” and the destabilization of society was imminent. The situation was therefore portrayed as an extraordinary (or rather dangerous) state of affairs, that deserved an enormous amount of media attention. All relevant takes place primarily within the European and Czech context. Migrants (or refugees) in non-European countries do not “exist” in the media reality, at least until they do not set for Europe.

The news blocs between September 25th to the 28th were introduced with the title, “The refugee crisis grows,” accompanied by video footage of refugees moving en masse.  The news that was analyzed, portrayed the amount of refugees coming to Europe as the core of the crisis, and this has the potential to – often in not very specific ways – create a devastating impact. The metaphors used to describe the situation are similar to the ones used to describe the raging elements of a natural disaster (“the wave of refugees rolls along Europe”).

The topic is perceived through a certain “catastrophic discourse”. We can understand this discourse as a “metaframework” that colors and shifts, if needed, the lens through which the topic is understood. The stress is usually not on the catastrophes that drove people from their homes, but rather on the threats that the states (and their inhabitants) face, due to the refugees’ movement. The majority of the analyzed contributions stress the problems the refugee’s presence has caused (or might cause). Very few news stories addressed the refugees’ own problems at some level.

The refugees were mainly presented as a mass, therefore a great amount of contributions were accompanied by photos and video footage of large groups moving together. Often these were the press agency’s stock images, used repeatedly as illustrative material. All contributions are what primarily map Czech locals’ (and those people living near the refugee centers) moods, and help frame the issue with concerns about threats and security. The reporters did not take a neutral position from the positions of the interviewed inhabitants. Only one news story was evaluated as positive towards the refugees, and it noted the humanitarian angle of the issue, informing people about donating activities for refugees.

As for TV Prima´s news, the RRTV concluded: “Its broadcasting generally did not exhibit much care for the refugees’ perspectives, depicting them more as a source of problems for Europeans. This distinctly Eurocentric view can implicitly foster rejectionist (anti-refugee) positions within the Czech public,” and then they concluding that, “such an approach by itself constitutes a breach of the broadcasting law.” The Chairman of the RRTV, Ivan Krejčí, then claimed:

“The RRTV has no jurisdiction that would allow it to check, or investigate, the internal instructions the employees of any TV station are provided. But if it is true that employees of one particular broadcaster were literally instructed to prepare news in contradiction to the rules of objectivity and balance, this means in contradiction to the Broadcasting Act, it is an alarming situation. Whether the broadcaster, following such instructions, provides really biased and unbalanced news, the RRTV can check only by monitoring and conducting an analytical evaluation of the aired news content. As you know, the RRTV has already extensively monitored the TV Prima’s news and the results revealed some problematic aspects, but not constitute an administrative offense. Due to our doubts about the way the station is informing about the migration crisis, the RRTV decided to more extensively monitor TV Prima’s news programming. This monitoring is now in process, and the RRTV will discuss the analytical outputs in September or October of this year. If the analysis discovers that the law has been breached, for example, that the broadcaster informed against the rules of objectivity and balance, the broadcaster will be notified about the breach of the law or it will be fined.”

The RRTV also scrutinized other television stations’ commentary on the topic between August 24th and September 13th, 2015. Comparatively, when Czech commercial TV Nova’s news coverage was analyzed, RRTV concluded: “The broadcasting generally did not attempt to influence viewers’ opinions with a one-sided portrayal. We have not identified a moment in the station’s broadcasting, which we would evaluate as a breach of the rules of objectivity and balance.” The RRTV analysis also addressed the news on Czech public TV during the given period: “We have not identified any moment in Czech TV´s programs, ČT1 and ČT24, that could be assessed as a breach of objectivity and balance.”

The original Czech version of this article was published here, here, here and here by the webzine, HlídacíPes.org (30.5., 31.5., 1.6. 2016).

Notes:

  1. “Petr Robejšek is a Czech political scientist, economist and commentator. He criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her approach toward the European migration crisis in November 2015.” accessed on June 2, 2016, http://bit.ly/1RTDa4o.  
  2. “Klára Samková is a Czech lawyer. She is strictly against Islam and the refugees, migrating from Africa and Asia to Europe.” accessed on June 2, 2016, http://bit.ly/1WzZNme. She said that Islam is like Nazism and Communism; Josef Kopecký, “Islám je jako nacismus, řekla Samková. A turecký velvyslanec odešel / Islam is like Nazism, Samková said. The Turkish ambassador left,” idnes.cz, May 18, 2016, accessed on June 2, 2016, http://bit.ly/1qtDnF6.
  3. Parlamentní listy is an online commentary portal, accessed on June 2, 2016, http://bit.ly/1Y7JgWm.
  4. “Dawn – National Coalition is a right-wing populist and euro-skeptic political party in the Czech Republic. In the parliamentary election of 2013 the party attained 342,339 votes (6.88%) and gained 14 parlimentary seats.” Accessed on June 2, 2016, http://bit.ly/1Xr7AU9.
  5. Tomio Okamura is a Japanese–Czech entrepreneur and politician. In May 2015 Okamura founded the Movement of Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD). Accessed on June 2, 2016, http://bit.ly/1WzZoQW.
  6. Vlastimil Vondruška, “Prohráli jsme a poneseme následky / We lost and we will face the consequences,” Mladá fronta Dnes, August 22, 2015, p. 15.
  7. Ibid.
  8. (em), “Vyjádření FTV Prima k nahrávce zveřejněné dne 31.5. 2016 na webu / TV Prima´s statement, May 31, 2016,” HlidaciPes.org, Mediahub, May 31, 2016, accessed on June 2, 2016, http://bit.ly/1t84lob.
Robert Břešťan

Robert Břešťan

is Editor-in-Chief of HlídacíPes.org. He graduated from the College of Journalism and Josef Škvorecký´s Literary Academy. He has worked as a redactor and speaker for Czech Radio 6/Radio Free Europe, the Czech section of BBC World Service, a news reporter for Hospodářské noviny and the editor-in-chief of the Czech Radio news station, Radio Czechia. He was also a chief commentator at the weekly, Ekonom, from 2011 to 2014.