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Expanding the Fourth Estate in the Czech Republic

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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 former samizdat 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?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.