The Expansion and Contraction of the Fourth Estate in East-Central Europe

Stanislav Holec

Stanislav Holec

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

When Communism collapsed in 1989 in East-Central Europe, many industries collapsed with it. Factories closed, workers were out of jobs, and economies shrank. But one sector of the economy grew: the media. Where there had once been a state monopoly, now there was pluralism. There was suddenly an explosion of reporting, commentary, TV debates.

All these new media outlets – newspapers, radio programs, TV stations – needed journalists. So, many young people switched jobs and became the new reporters. During my travels in 1990, I met many of these newly minted journalists. One of them was Stanislav Holec.

We met in London in March 1990, when he was part of a delegation of Czech journalists. He was new to the profession at that time, having enlisted in the ranks at the time of the Velvet Revolution. He’d gone to school to study engineering but had soon discovered that he was more interested in rock climbing and foreign travel. The revolution couldn’t have come along at a better time.

“Just as the Velvet Revolution happened on November 17, 1989, I was at one of the demonstrations,” Stanislav Holec told me. “I said to my friend, I am unemployed just now, so I can help out during the day, even in the morning. This girl said, ‘Come with me tomorrow morning, we’ll go somewhere you can help out.’ The next morning, we went to some Civic Forum activist and he said, ‘You speak English, you speak French, sit down at this telephone and write down messages from journalists from abroad.’”

It wasn’t long before the legendary dissident Petr Uhl plucked him from this lowly task. Holec continued: “After a few days of that, Civic Forum activist Peter Uhl said to me, ‘You are young, non-communist, independent — you can help me with this independent news agency, the East European Information Agency.’ I said, ‘Yes, but I’m not a journalist. I’d like to help you. But I don’t know how to write.” He said, ‘If you have a degree in mechanical engineering, you have to be able to learn the difference between ‘i’ and ‘y.’ And you have to be able to study grammar.’ So I bought a grammar book and studied it for two months, and I began to write.”

It turned out that this universe of journalism was an oscillating one: expanding in the early 1990s in East-Central Europe and contracting a decade later. You can meet many former journalists in East-Central Europe today. Stanislav Holec, meanwhile, has become an entrepreneur and faces an entirely different set of challenges.

The Interview

You started out as an engineer and then you switched to journalism. When did you do that and why?

Under the previous regime, I grew up with anti-Communist parents. Their parents were Masaryk supporters. Therefore, I didn’t want to cooperate with the regime. When I grew up, I wanted to have more and more freedom. I didn’t want to work in this Communist establishment. In school, I studied mechanical engineering. I was focused on cars, airplanes. It was good for me, this technical university, because there was almost no politics: mathematics is the same even according to Marxism. I was an independent student, ultimately not involved in Communist youth organizations.

But I didn’t start to work as a professional engineer. During my studies, I began rock climbing. It was also a kind of emigration. I wanted to travel and meet people. I studied languages. I went to East Germany, Hungary, and tried to meet Western people there. While I was suffering under this dictatorship, I dreamed about traveling abroad to countries that were liberal and democratic.

Then I worked for a year as a worker painting roofs with a climbing club. Then I went into the army for one year of compulsory military service. When I finished, I thought that after a year of manual labor, maybe I should work more with my head. I wanted to get some job at a technical university.

Just as the Velvet Revolution happened on November 17, 1989, I was at one of the demonstrations. I said to my friend, I am unemployed just now, so I can help out during the day, even in the morning. This girl said, “Come with me tomorrow morning, we’ll go somewhere you can help out.” The next morning, we went to some Civic Forum activist and he said, “You speak English, you speak French, sit down at this telephone and write down messages from journalists from abroad.”

After a few days of that, Civic Forum activist Peter Uhl said to me, “You are young, non-communist, independent — you can help me with this independent news agency, the East European Information Agency.”

I said, “Yes, but I’m not a journalist. I’d like to help you. But I don’t know how to write.”

He said, “If you have a degree in mechanical engineering, you have to be able to learn the difference between ‘i’ and ‘y.’ And you have to be able to study grammar.”

So I bought a grammar book and studied it for two months, and I began to write. I was employed at the formersamizdat newspaper Lidove Noviny, which tried to support this independent agency. In June 1990, I realized it was nonsense to devote one’s self to something small and non-professional when the main media already was writing independently. So I quit this job. The Czech news agency was looking for someone without a Communist history and with some journalistic experience and some knowledge of English. I had an American girlfriend at that time in Prague, so I’d improved my English quite a lot that way!

So, I began to work as a junior reporter at the Czech news agency on a one-month probation. Even on that first day on the job, I helped them cover an event they’d missed. I knew the minister because I used to take care of his grandchildren at home. So I went with a recorder just to ask some questions and then wrote down the answers. Another day some American diplomat came and I was the only one from the home desk who was able to speak English. They said I’d done a good job and changed my contract to a several-month contract. I worked very hard because I felt that it was a very interesting job. I wanted to learn about the world. I didn’t want to just work in the same field until retirement. Then I learned that journalism is the one job where every day is different.

Probably my advantage as a journalist was that I had a good logical way of thinking. I was able to choose the most important elements from a lot of different facts at a press conference, for instance, and construct a news story around this simple information. Even graduates of the journalism program at the university had problems with this. They were good at writing, maybe even writing a novel, but they had problem with news. A lot of them couldn’t pick out the most important point from all that information.

After three or four years, I began to work as head of the home desk. I spent nine years in the news agency, even with all the layoffs and competition. And then I moved to a big Czech newspaper to develop its Internet news site. After a couple years I reached the position of multimedia division director there, which I held until 2009. Then I established my own company.

You went with Havel to Tajikistan?

No, I was in Tajikistan with mountaineers in 1987. Concerning Havel it was another trip.  In 1995, I went with Havel on a big trip to Australia, New Zealand, Philippines and Singapore. It was with his first wife Olga. And one year after that, Olga died.

How long a trip was it?

Ten days. Not a big trip. It was quite quick, quite superficial. And I realized that my gathering of information about the world was superficial too. I knew how to get the news. I knew if there was some grammar problem, a comma missing. But I didn’t know deeply about world events.

Did you learn anything new about Havel on this trip?

I wouldn’t say that I learned anything new even though I was in close contact with him. I learned a little bit more about his wife and their relationship. I just confirmed what I’d read before.

Like that he smoked a lot!

I did as well. So for me it was quite natural. He was at a different level. I was just young, just a kid. But he was speaking with me as well. And it was great.

What was your favorite story that you did as a journalist?

I asked questions of President Bill Clinton when he was visiting Prague. It was an impressive event. One time I did a small interview with Nelson Mandela. I did a longer interview with British Prime Minister John Major. But maybe the most interesting period was when I was a junior correspondent in London for three months.

What was your impression of journalism here in the Czech Republic in those days compared with journalism in other countries?

In those days, we tried to work in the British or American style of journalism. We did news without commentary. Reuters was the standard for us. I think the events at that time were so interesting they didn’t need comment.

Then journalists tried to be more interesting, tried to compete with the new media. The status of newspapers declined. I don’t know German very well. But I studied German in order to learn more about Czech-German culture. I learned that the German tradition is to try to educate people with the news. For instance, a German newspaper did a story about a cartoon in which they wrote that MTV showed this strange and stupid video cartoon about the Pope. The title of the article was itself a commentary. I would have written that MTV did a cartoon about the Pope and a Catholic official says it’s stupid. I think that this kind of journalism has a messiah complex where the journalists believe they should inform the world in such a way as to make it better.

I tried to persuade them that people are clever and they are adults and we should simply inform. We can write comments but publish them in a different part of the paper.

Now they’re doing this instant journalism, which is more about the form than the substance. It’s more about exhibition: “our reporter discovered something” rather than just saying that something happened. Or, “this newspaper is bringing you some good news, that inflation is going up” or “inflation is going down,” which is in reality good news for somebody and bad news for somebody else.

I’d like to hear your opinion about what has changed here in the Czech Republic over the last 23 years. Given what you expected in 1990, is it better, worse, or the same?

I probably expected it. I was very sad to have to live under a dictatorship. And now we live in freedom. And I think there’s still freedom here. Some leaders, like Havel, declared that life here is not on a good foundation, that people are in a bad mood. And then people started to be in a bad mood. I don’t know what happened first — the declaration or the feeling. People are still in a bad mood. They say that the system is bad. Maybe it’s because some politicians are involved in criminal affairs. But I still feel that I am free, that I can do what I want, can travel wherever I want, can work where I want. I feel quite safe. People around me are unhappy, though.

Why are they unhappy?

They are afraid of a harder future, and they don’t want to fight for survival. Before, it was easy. Every young man or woman wanted to have not only a car, not only a flat, but also a house. You could get everything on credit. When they lost their jobs, they lost these things. But even then, the state system saved everyone. If you put your money into a bank with a high interest rate and the bank went bankrupt, you lost your money. But then the state stepped in and gave your money back.

People basically haven’t needed to work hard to get money. They don’t want to work. Everyone wants leisure. Europe and America are full of rich people who don’t want to do manual work or work more than eight hours a day. The people in Asia and Africa are willing to work more. This is normal. The civilization in Rome was at a high level, but then no one wanted to work or fight, so poorer nations took over.

Do you think the Euro-American civilization will be overthrown in our lifetime?

It’s tough to say. Developments happen very quickly. But I hope the wealth will move from the richer to the poorer. This is the chance of globalization. I don’t know what it will happen at the end. The world is still divided between rich and poor areas, and it needs to equalize the living standards. This could happen in 5-10 years. You can see it here in Europe, in Spain and Greece.

I have a friend who runs a company that produces paper filters for some companies like McDonalds worldwide. One location is in London, another is in the Czech Republic. And they have a location in Spain. He told me that they will have to close the company in Spain. They have 20 people who have worked there longer than 20 years. In order to fire them, they would have to pay them something like two years of salary. So it is easier to close the factory than to get rid of these 20 people. These people are so secure, they don’t need to work very hard.

I don’t know what it’s like in the United States, but the situation here in the EU is very strange. The administrative duty is so heavy that every manager needs to have its own accountant. Every year there’s a new duty, a new form to fill out. The offices give terrible advice so you have to hire your own lawyer.

In the Czech Republic?

In Europe in general. But I think the Czech Republic is the worst. I even read that the administrative difficulties for entrepreneurs here are the biggest in Europe. Today I was in the customs office. I was getting some guidebooks from Turkey to sell. These are just samples. There was no customs fee, no VAT. I had to pay a relatively small amount, 100 euros. But I had to go to the post office and the customs office, and they couldn’t just give me the forms to fill out. I had to pay 10 euros to a private company that was located next door for 10 minutes to write the forms. I asked them why I could not do it in handwriting? No, you can do it only with typewriter. Usually you do not bring a typewriter with you on the way to the post office.  Every day I learn something new that I have to do. And we are not competitive at all because of these duties and because taxes are getting higher. Companies are thinking it’s better to move somewhere else.

But aren’t there still companies coming to the Czech Republic looking to hire people at competitive salaries?

I think that is over. Companies here are closing down. Maybe they still come here to hire educated, skilled workers. But we had a car manufacturer here, actually a joint venture of three firms, and now they are almost closing down. It’s for a number of reasons. The market is going down. People are buying fewer cars worldwide. And salaries here are going up. But the salaries here are still lower than in other European countries. They’re two-thirds of the average European country. So production is still cheaper here, but it’s going up.

This is the 20th year anniversary of the breakup of Czechoslovakia. Was that a surprise for you?

It was a big surprise for me. But my father predicted it to me before. He was born in Slovakia. My grandmother was also born in that area, though it was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I understand that Slovaks felt this inferiority. Me, as a Czech, I didn’t feel this. “It’s fine to be together,” I’d say. They’d say, “Your capital is in Prague.” My father said, “You will see that Slovakia will be independent.” He remembered in 1939 when Slovakia established an independent state. His family had to go to the Czech Republic at that time because my grandfather was Czech. My father remembers Jews and Czechs receiving death threats during that period in Slovakia. He remembers that fear from childhood.

When I heard Meciar announce the break-up of the country — I was there in Brno as a reporter — it was shocking to me. It can’t be, I thought. And then after half a year, it happened. At first I thought it was stupid. Now I guess I think it’s okay — because we are both in Europe. One Europe is good for traveling, exchanging goods. Maybe it would be better with one currency but I’m happy that we don’t have the Euro. I think Czech crowns will be more valuable because the salary level here is relatively low. It’s not just because of the overall crisis in Europe but because of the labor costs here. Except for gas and food — it’s all cheaper because manpower is cheaper.

It’s great to travel to Slovakia again after 25 years. Before the revolution, I went there frequently. Now I’ve been there a couple times. It’s still easy to travel there. There’s no problem with the border. Even as an entrepreneur it is good.

What do you think about Milos Zeman, the incoming Czech president?

When I began to think about voting for the new president about a year ago, I said to myself, “For me, the only candidate is Karel Schwarzenberg.” I met him 20 years ago. He’s not afraid to say unpopular things. He’s rich enough not to be motivated just to become wealthier through politics. But I didn’t think he could have a chance as a candidate. As for the other candidates, I didn’t know Jan Fischer, he is a relatively new man in politics.

And the other candidates? We had a candidate, Vladimir Franz, who had a tattoo all over his face. He’s some professor of music, a crazy artist. He was running as an independent and got some support from young people. He was the favorite of overseas journalists because he was very colorful. And there were some other very weak candidates – like former Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier’s son — he’s just a kid, too young. Therefore it came down to Milos Zeman. He was someone I knew. He has a history. It doesn’t matter whether he’s left-wing or right-wing. He could be strange. But he has a personality.

During the campaign, Zeman was very arrogant. Czech politicians are very arrogant. But Schwarzenberg is not arrogant. People voted for him because of that in the first round. But in the second round, poorer people now began to be the majority. They were afraid of Germans, afraid because Schwarzenberg is a nobleman. Some people said he was old, doesn’t speak well, his wife is German. The most important thing was that he couldn’t really explain his opinion about the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans. He said it was not good to move these Germans back to Germany. But he didn’t explain it very well. And people didn’t want to hear it.

Is there anything that you changed your mind about over the last 23 years?

Many things! Originally I was part of this Civic Forum, the opposition. But I was not educated. I was too young. I thought it was an interesting idea but without deeper understanding. I spent the next 10 years learning about the world. I also found a way to come to terms with God. When I was 18 or 20, I thought it would be nice to be provocative against communism and so I believed in God. Then I found some sense of morality. Now, I don’t believe that God exists. Some people believe in God, of course. But it seems to me fairer and more understandable if God doesn’t exist. That was a change when I was about 30.

As well, I learned that all the theory of economics and politics and management are just lies. The things that you were taught in university – about how there is some method, some way of doing things — just doesn’t square with real life. For example, you will automatically get some money when you lose your job. No, you have to fight to get that money!

Gradually, I began to understand that I am better oriented than when I was a journalist. And therefore, I am realizing that kids these days are not prepared to make good decisions. I remember that many of my colleagues in journalism wanted to be commentators at the age of 25. Maybe because I was educated as engineer, I was not so self-confident as that.

I’ve learned that our life struggle is still the same after a thousand years. When I went to Pompei, I saw that the houses looked very much the same: a living room, a children’s room, bathroom, kitchen. The merchant house even had a window out to the street like McDonald’s. I read some old books from the Caesar period and learned that they had the same interests, same troubles, same family issues as we do. Even when we began to travel very quickly with planes and communicate around the world with cell phones, these things changed our lives completely but we still have the same problems — to have good food, good relationships with girls, with our children, to become educated, to earn more money.

When I got older, I began to understand that 10 years, 50 years, 100 years is very short. I used to think that the 19th century was medieval, antique. Also the Second World War. But my father was 16 at the end of World War II. The 19th century was 30 years before he was born. And I think 30 years ago was just recently.  Life is getting shorter and shorter. So I am trying to do what I really want to do.

Prague, February 14, 2013

  • Richard Staněk

    Well, Vladimir Franz is definitely not “some” professor”; he is a professor of the Prague´s Academy of Performing Arts, and the most successful Czech stage music composer – at least as for the number of awards. And as for his “craziness” – every great artist is somehow crazy, Mr “some” Holec…