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30 July 2003
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There is perhaps no better last name for a Czech journalist than 'Pravda,' the Czech word for truth--until, that is, the journalist’s veracity and methods begin to be called into question.

by Katerina Zachovalova

PRAGUE, Czech Republic--“‘Surrender! On the ground,’ shouted a British officer leading a small commando raid as a soldier kicked open the tin door of a small house, and everyone stormed inside. Guns pointed, pounding boots, and shouting that sent shivers down your back. ‘Down! Hands behind your head! Put your hands behind your head!’ he screamed at an Iraqi, slamming him hard from behind when he did not do what he was told.”

The dramatic scene and colorful details come from a story by Petr Pravda, a journalist in the foreign news department for the most popular non-tabloid Czech daily, Mlada fronta Dnes, a paper with an average circulation of over 300,000. Pravda was a war correspondent in Kuwait and southern Iraq during the recent conflict.

Petr Pravda's byline


That vivid description has, however, a serious flaw. Pravda did not witness that dramatic scene, or those he wrote about in other articles, and he failed to say so. Yet the result has been very different than at The New York Times, which was shaken this spring by one of the worst scandals in its illustrious history: One of the paper’s reporters, Jayson Blair, fabricated quotes and facts, plagiarized, and pretended to report from places where he had never set foot. The New York Times sacked its fallen reporter, and several top editors resigned. Mlada fronta Dnes, which has ambitions to be the country’s paper of record, has, however, backed its longtime correspondent. And, in a sign of the state of Czech journalism ethics, the rest of the country’s media hasn’t even covered the case.

A CREATIVE IMAGINATION

In the piece quoted above, which was published on 31 March, Pravda painted a picture of the British siege of Basra, a southern Iraqi city of 1.2 million. The phrase “from our own correspondent” and Pravda’s signature accompanied his article. The reportage did not mention any other source of information.

The dateline--the location that appears on the top of a newspaper story--was vague. It read “southern Iraq, Kuwait.” According to the respected Associated Press stylebook, a foreign dateline can be used only “if the basic information in a story was obtained by a full- or part-time correspondent physically present in the datelined community.” That evidently was not the case in this instance. Lucie Tvaruzkova, a reporter for the Czech weekly Tyden who interviewed Pravda, said that the correspondent admitted that he was not in Basra until early May, when he arrived there with the former defense minister, Jaroslav Tvrdik.

Pravda declined to answer questions from TOL about his whereabouts.

In another Mlada fronta story that the reporter discussed with Tvaruzkova, Pravda described the desert journey toward Baghdad of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry. But he wasn’t embedded with U.S. or British troops. Again, the story is signed only by Petr Pravda and does not mention any other sources of information. Pravda admitted, Tvaruzkova said, that the on-the-ground reports of CNN’s Walter Rodgers provided him with the basis for the lively piece that ran on 22 March.

Another Pravda story included a quote and information lifted from wire services without any attribution. “I got sensors that cost $12,000 and birds that cost $60 each and I place just as much trust in the bird as the sensor,” Mlada fronta quoted Staff Sergeant Dan Wallace as saying in Camp Inchon on 19 March. That was five days after Reuters published an identical quote in a story about pigeons that are able to indicate the presence of chemical weapons. The story that ran on the front page was accompanied by Pravda’s photograph and the words “reportage from the place of crisis.”

A DIFFERENCE IN OPINION

In an interview with TOL, Robert Casensky, the deputy editor in chief at Mlada fronta in charge of the paper’s reporters, argued that Pravda did not make up any facts and that he never wrote that he saw the scenes himself.

“I have to say that there were only two cases when we thought, let’s do it better the next time,” said Casensky, referring to the story that included the Reuters quote as one of those instances. “Actually, I am not totally sure whether we can talk about a failure of the writer in those cases, or whether it was not rather the editor who made the mistake by adding [information from wire reports].”

But Ari Goldman, a journalism professor at Columbia University in New York, said that Pravda clearly violated some basic principles and practices of journalism.

“I don’t know why Czech editors don’t see this,” he wrote in an e-mail. “If I was to take your car and drive it around as my own, that would be stealing. You paid for it, you put gas in it. It’s the same thing with taking information. Some CNN cameraman may have risked his life to get the footage broadcast on his station. How can Pravda, sitting safely elsewhere, take it without giving CNN credit?”

Unlike The New York Times, Mlada fronta has not published a hand-wringing mea culpa or an apology to its readers in an attempt to save its reputation. The paper is not under any pressure to do so: The Czech media has not reported about Mlada fronta’s dirty laundry, because, some media analysts say, of a desire to protect their own, as well as a failure to recognize that any wrongdoing was committed.

STOP THE PRESSES

Tyden’s Tvaruzkova was the only reporter who worked on a story about Pravda’s practices, which was scheduled to appear in the 26 May issue of the magazine. The piece was full of the examples mentioned above and, like this article, used the commando raid as a powerful introduction. But Tvaruzkova's investigation was never published.

According to a reporter from Tyden who wished to remain anonymous out of a fear of getting fired, the magazine’s editor in chief, Dalibor Balsinek, had discussed the story with his Mlada fronta counterpart, Pavel Safr. At an editorial meeting on 23 May, Balsinek and the editors in charge of the magazine’s desks met to decide the article’s fate, the reporter said. They also discussed whether Tyden could be attacked for the same practices. Although the majority of the editors supported publishing Tvaruzkova’s report, Balsinek pulled it.

“The story did not reflect reality,” Balsinek said angrily in a telephone conversation. “I did not consider it so important.” The editor in chief conceded that he did not look at Pravda’s stories that served as the basis for Tvaruzkova’s article but denied that he was under any pressure from Mlada fronta, the strongest player in the Czech media market and holder of a 26 percent share in Tyden’s distribution company, PNS.

For Milan Smid, one of the Czech Republic’s most prominent media critics, the reason for the silence about the story throughout the industry is clear.

“The problem is that all the media do it [plagiarize from other media],” he said. “We are all involved. There is a danger that if you attack someone they will attack you. Tyden isn’t without its own mistakes. A war could develop instead of a discussion.”

HARDLY A LONE WOLF

The extent of plagiarism in the Czech media is unknown, as no academic studies have been done on the issue. However, according to journalists and media experts interviewed for this story, it is a widespread practice. But Smid said that the newsrooms--not the reporters--are to blame for plagiarism and unfair sourcing practices. He explained that a reporter usually behaves in a manner that is common in a given medium and does what his or her editors allow.

“I remember asking my editor in the first newspaper I worked for whether we have to acknowledge that we got a quote from somewhere else,” said a reporter from a large national daily who wished to remain anonymous. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry about it, they will forgive us.’

“I will say about myself that I search for information from the BBC and other established foreign media websites,” the reporter said, adding that he often does not attribute this information because his editor told him that the stories read smoother without it. “And I am not the only one,” he concluded.

Vit Kolar, the BBC World Service chief correspondent in Prague, said he has noticed at least five cases of the Czech media plagiarizing BBC material in the last three months. “I cannot say that [I see it] every day, but I run across it regularly, and in spite of the fact that I am not the kind of person who looks for it,” he said. He added that every time he or his editors discover plagiarism, he immediately contacts the offender.

“Unfortunately, in the Czech Republic, although everyone admits a mistake and apologizes, that’s where it ends,” Kolar said.

MUDDLED ETHICS

While plagiarism is condemned on the national and metropolitan desks, it is tolerated in the foreign news departments. The main reason seems to be the small chance that the offender will actually get caught. The language barrier helps a lot. The authors of the stolen material are not likely to find out that someone in the Czech Republic has robbed them. Stealing from the foreign press is also not considered a journalistic mortal sin, but merely a minor, “technical” offense.

“If someone signed a story that he translated from The New York Times and I found out about it, then I would tell that reporter: ‘Don’t ever do it again.’ That’s it,” said Frantisek Sulc, the former foreign editor for the daily Lidove noviny who is now head of the national desk. “If a reporter claims that he was in the [Czech] parliament interviewing people, and I find out that he was sitting at home, he will be at least on probation. … It [plagiarism in the domestic news] is more visible,” Sulc said.

Over at Mlada fronta, Pravda--who otherwise has an excellent reputation as one of the country's most experienced foreign reporters--remained unrepentant. “I wrote the news as it is always done,” he told TOL, before cutting the conversation off, saying he was offended by the accusations.

“My conscience is clean,” he had told Tyden in the unpublished story. “It must have been clear to everyone that I could not get to those places. I only tried to write lively news with the addition of my own opinion and information that I got by myself.”

Katerina Zachovalova is a Prague-based freelance reporter.

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