A Czech Television (ČTV) documentary is threatening to raise tensions within the country’s Muslim population to a level not seen here during weeks of recent global unrest over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Ambassadors to the Czech Republic from Arab nations and members of the Czech Muslim community say they are outraged by a documentary aired on ČTV last fall that used hidden camera footage of conversations in a Prague mosque and spliced it — they say unfairly — with images of terrorism.
“The reaction is usually immediate, while in this case it took a month for any reaction to appear and two months for it to grow,” says Jiří Ovečka, the documentary’s producer. “It was the same with the Muhammad cartoons.”
Protests came just weeks after dozens of European publications, including several in the Czech Republic, printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad — considered blasphemous in Islam. Riots over the cartoons in the Muslim world resulted in more than 100 deaths.
In its own way, the cartoon controversy rekindled anger over the documentary.
The Council of Arabic Ambassadors to Prague is now renewing its protest about the undercover footage first aired Oct. 7 in the documentary I, Muslim on the public station ČT2.
Members of the Muslim community first filed a complaint with the Czech Radio and Television Broadcasting Council (RRTV) that month, claiming the program is biased, provokes fear and manipulates footage to promote false stereotypes.
“It was made in a confrontational style,” says Vladimír Sáňka, head of the Islamic Center in Prague. “We see it as a one-sided documentary, which evokes a distorted look at Islam in the eyes of the Czech public.”
RRTV spokesman Petr Bartoš says the complaint is on the RRTV’s agenda, but it has yet to debate the issue. If found guilty, ČTV would face a fine of up to 10 million Kč ($416,000).
ČTV declined to comment, saying it is waiting for the RRTV to rule.
The footage in I, Muslim shows a reporter pretending to be someone interested in converting to Islam. He conducts several conversations with members of the mosque, located in Černý Most, about Islam, Europe, terrorism and the role of women.
Ovečka says he stands behind his choice to use the hidden camera footage.
“I wanted to get real opinions of the local Muslim community on the issue — find out what the differences are between Czech and foreign Islam,” he says.
One Muslim in the documentary compares Islamic terrorists to Jan Palach, the Czech student who committed suicide by setting himself on fire in protest of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Another says Islamic law should be implemented in the Czech Republic, including the death penalty for adultery, Ovečka says.
“I have to say with 100 percent certainty that by using hidden camera I have learned things that I would never have learned otherwise,” he says. “The result was alarming, and if not for the hidden camera, I would have never had any of this footage.”
The documentary’s editing is drawing the most criticism.
Marek Čaněk, a project coordinator with the Prague Multicultural Center, says the documentary was edited in such a way that it fed into pre-existing xenophobia.
Opponents of the documentary cite its footage of the mosque, intercut with images of terrorist attacks, without any proven connection between the two.
They also say the use of a hidden camera makes it seem as though such discussions in mosques are secretive, when in fact anyone can film inside a mosque with permission.
“I consider it a scandal that it has been produced and broadcast by public television,” Čaněk says. “It fits in the general frame of fear of Islam and Muslims coming to us from other parts of Europe. People are afraid without knowing what exactly they fear.”
Ovečka says that any xenophobia the documentary created was not the result of anything he did.
“It’s like this: During official shooting they were peaceful, nice,” he says. “Hidden camera footage showed something else — aversion, hatred toward Europe, the entire world, and a mild attitude toward terrorism.”
History of bias
Czech public television is “marred by excessive politicization,” according to an independent report released by the European Union Monitoring and Advocacy Program (EUMAP) Feb. 20.
Eva Rybková, the EUMAP reporter for the Czech Republic, says she has not seen the I, Muslim program, but did say that the station has faced several cases of sanctions for biased reporting in the past.
“ČTV editors are aware of what impartial and balanced news content should look like, and it tries to give space to both sides of the dispute,” she says. “But this doesn’t mean that ČTV broadcasts were never biased.”
Rybková says the situation has improved since the protests against managerial changes at the station in 2001 and the arrival of new general director Jiří Janeček in July 2003, but she adds that there is still the need to distinguish ČTV from its commercial counterparts.
“The content on ČTV is still the station’s attempt to compete with commercial stations,” she says.
What it is: Czech Television airs a documentary called I, Muslim, showing undercover footage of Muslims inside a Prague mosque
Why it was done: According to the producer, to learn what the "true, real stance" of Czech Muslims on Islamization of the Czech Republic
The reaction: The Council of Arabic Ambassadors condemns the program, calling it a deliberate attempt to distort the truth
Where it stands: The Czech Radio and Television Broadcasting Council has yet to decide on the issue. It can fine Čzech Television up to 10 million Kč ($416,000)