In the latest twist in a bitter two-week-old conflict over the independence of the press, the embattled director of Czech Television was rushed to the hospital today suffering from an undisclosed ailment, his adviser said.
The adviser, Pavel Bobosik, said Jiri Hodac was taken to the intensive care unit at Prague’s Motol Hospital after being treated by doctors at home. Hodac was reported to be in very serious condition, but no details were immediately available on his illness, Bobosik said.
Hodac’s ailment came a day after an estimated 100,000 Czechs took to the streets of Prague, packing Wenceslas Square in the largest protest seen since similar demonstrations swept away communism in the 1989 “Velvet Revolution.”
“Our generation has already caused the fall of one regime, and those in power should realize that they are there because of us, and are responsible for their behavior,” said Daniel Hulka, a pop singer and one of many artists and pop icons who spoke at the demonstration.
The crisis has been growing since December 20th when the staff of the state-run Czech Television took over their own newsroom in protest against the appointment of Jiri Hodac as new director. The appointment has developed into a political crisis with as-yet-unpredictable implications.
Dissident journalists refused to work with Hodac, and he responded by firing the rest of management as well as some prominent journalists. The rebellious news staff refused to give in and have since been holed up in the newsroom trying to air their own news programming.
Some 1,700 Czech Television staff members are now backing the rebels, and about 130,000 other people have signed a petition demanding Hodac’s dismissal.
Czech Television staff claim that the appointment was political. Hodac is seen as the right-hand man of Vaclav Klaus, the speaker of the Czech parliament and leader of the opposition Civic Democratic Party.
Klaus is currently locked in a bitter feud with popular Czech President Vaclav Havel, who has phoned the sit-in strikers with his support. Havel’s actress wife Dagmar has appeared at nightly demonstrations supporting them. Havel himself is still recovering from one of his frequent bouts of pneumonia.
On Wednesday, the Czech Minister of Culture was on the rebel journalists’ news broadcast explaining a draft law related to Czech Television when Hodac pulled the plug on the broadcast.
A spokeswoman for Minister Pavel Dostal said he plans to sue Hodac for cutting him off the air.
“If Mr. Hodac wants to prevent the public from learning about these things, he’s acting against the law,” Dostal said earlier.
The proposed law he had been trying to explain would make changes in the appointment of the Czech Television council, a supervisory body that can elect and dismiss the station’s director.
It is aimed at giving the council independence from political parties. The bill still needs parliamentary approval.
Press Freedom at Stake
Journalistic freedom is a sensitive issue in this country of 10 million people. Many here have bitter memories of communism and remember the years when television was little more than a propaganda tool for the Communist Party.
Czech Television, which runs two channels, is one of the three stations that cover the entire country. At Wednesday’s rally, protesters spoke out against political influences over the network’s coverage.
“We want to freely report the news according to our conscience,” said Daniela Drtinova, one of the main TV anchors.
Klaus, who is parliament speaker, defended Hodac’s appointment as legal and denied any ties to the new director. On Wednesday, the upper chamber of the Czech parliament called for Hodac’s resignation.
The standoff reflects three years of political tension since the 1997 downfall of the Klaus-led center-right government. The bitter rivalry between Klaus and Havel, whose term ends in 2003, has dominated Czech politics ever since.
ABCNEWS’ Alexander Surtula in Prague, ABCNEWS.com’s Sue Masterman in Vienna and The Associated Press contributed to this report.