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CNN’s Perplexing Choice of Czech News Partner

A station whose management openly instructed reporters to put a negative slant on migration is about to join the American network’s stellar international team. by Jana Ciglerova 15 May 2019

Many took it as an April Fool’s joke when CNN announced it would launch a news channel in the Czech Republic. From all the possible players in the Czech news market, the renowned news organization chose the least likely: the family-oriented Prima TV, a station with next to no news reputation.


The channel should begin broadcasting within the next 12 months, Dan Faulks, a vice president of CNN International Commercial (CNNIC), said in an exclusive interview with the Czech online outlet Denik N. The advent of CNN, something of a miracle for many Czech news junkies, is part of the station's long-term strategy of strengthening its position and extending its influence in Central and Eastern Europe. On its home ground in the United States, CNN lags behind the currently unconquerable Fox News and MSNBC. Nielsen monitoring data shows that CNN finished in third place in 2018 with an average primetime audience of 990,000 – down 6 percent from the year before.


What puzzles Czech news experts is the reasoning behind this step. Why would this world-renowned organization, admired for its high journalistic standards, be interested in the Czech market? Faulks explains: “CNN looks strategically at countries and markets where we see an appetite for a new news entrant and a partner that we can work with to launch a local version of CNN. The Czech Republic is certainly one of these markets.”


The new channel, to be called CNN Prima News, will be a direct competitor with the public CT24 channel, so far the only 24-hour news program on the Czech market. Understandably, the announcement of CNN’s imminent arrival shocked CT24 employees more than anyone else, as their experience makes them certain to be among the first local talent asked to join the new outlet and work for the famous brand.



But Faulks is reluctant to reveal who may be part of the new CNN team, saying only that further news about the station’s programming and personnel will be released in the coming months. A delegation from Prima is expected to arrive at CNN headquarters in Atlanta in the next couple of weeks.


What is certain so far is that CNN will embed at least one editor on Prima's editorial board to oversee the quality of the news content. Local reports produced by Prima will be interspersed with content from around the world provided by CNN’s international news team. 


Starting Anew


CNN Prima News will broadcast from a brand-new studio in the building where the telecommunications giant Vodafone used to have its prime Czech address. According to Prima Group CEO Marek Singer, it will be “the most modern television studio with the latest technology, unlike anything in the rest of Europe.”


Technical requirements were one part of the demanding negotiations that preceded this month’s announcement.


“We have been working with Prima for several months to agree this partnership, discuss suitability and agree how the actual channel launch can come to life,” Faulks said.


CNN Prima News will be the ninth Prima Group channel and will be available via terrestrial signal, cable, and satellite. The channel has applied to the Czech broadcasting regulator for a license.


The experience of CNN’s other foreign ventures shows that while they may not be the most popular channels in their respective countries, their viewership is very solid and stable, be it CNN Indonesia, CNN Philippines, or the new CNN Money Switzerland and CNN Greece. Along with the Czech CNN branch, South America will also open its own spinoff of the respected CNN International brand in the coming months with CNN Brasil.


Why Prima?


The news that CNN – an admired organization credited with superb journalism – would set up a Czech channel came as a major shock.


Prima is the third-most popular channel in the Czech Republic, after its private competitor Nova and public Czech Television. Its half-hour evening news show stresses domestic news and crime stories.


Prima’s news operation has never been heaped with praise so far as its respect to basic standards of reporting and journalism ethics goes.


“I wasn’t the only one who was perplexed by the news. Within five minutes of the announcement I was getting dozens of emails and messages,” Tomas Etzler, a CNN contributor and former CNN correspondent and producer, said in an interview for DVTV.


When he asked colleagues and friends at CNN Atlanta headquarters about the deal, Etzler says none knew of Prima’s reputation deficit.


“The biggest value CNN has is its credibility and objectivity. If they lose that, they'll lose their most important asset,” he says.


Etzler helps train new reporters for CNN’s foreign ventures and was a member of the team that helped launch CNN Money Switzerland.


“They brought in the most experienced editors, producers, directors, and reporters, and it took them a year to train the Swiss news team,” he says.


The Migrant Scandal


While CNN is regarded as on the liberal side of the U.S. TV news market, Prima's profile leans to the right, sometimes even far-right end of the spectrum. Its conservative views appear both in factual reporting and in the choice of personalities and commentators given airtime. This bias came through loud and clear in Prima’s coverage of immigration to Europe in 2015-2016, at the height of the so-called migrant crisis – when over 1 million people journeyed to the continent, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.


As complaints about the station’s reports swelled, the Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting, the national regulator, opened an investigation into Prima’s reporting on migration. Its report found that the station made baseless claims about migrants with the intention of sowing fear among viewers and amping up the level of anxiety and worry.


The council’s report made reference to a secret recording obtained by the online news outlet Hlidaci pes. In the recording of a meeting between Prima management and news reporters in August 2015, chief news editor Jitka Obzinova and Lubos Jetmar, the vice-chair of the board of FTV Prima Holding, openly instructed journalists to report what management told them – that migrants were a threat and harbingers of crisis.


In the meeting, Jetmar talked about his fear of Muslims: “I don't know how about you, but to be honest, I don't want to live to see the day when my daughter – do you have children? I have a nine-year-old daughter – when my daughter in 20, 30 years has to wear a burka and has no rights. That I certainly don't want, not me,” he says on the tape.


Obzinova then told reporters they could choose to report migration this way or leave.


“We are all employed here and we have an employer who has certain views. If I accept the views, if the news editor accepts the views, then you need to accept the views, too. And if you don't than it means you don't accept the fact you're employed here and therefore it makes no sense that you continue working here,” the chief news editor is heard saying.


When the recording was made public, no one in Prima management disputed its accuracy. The Broadcasting Council issued no penalty to Prima over the recording.


None of that seemed to worry the CNNIC management enough to reconsider its launch with Prima TV.


In Prima, Faulks said, “we feel we have the ideal partner to launch this channel.”

Jana Ciglerova is a journalist with the Czech news site Denik N, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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