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Havel’s Former Press Chief Advances Media Freedom At Home And Abroad

Czech Republic--Special Projects Coordinator at the Dox Centre for Contemporary Art Daniela Retkova. Prague, Oct. 8, 2015.
Czech Republic--Special Projects Coordinator at the Dox Centre for Contemporary Art Daniela Retkova. Prague, Oct. 8, 2015.

Daniela Retkova talks about the Czech Republic’s transition to an open media environment and her support for jailed journalist Khadija Ismayilova.

Daniela Retkova has a long history of championing free media. As former Czech President Vaclav Havel’s first press department chief, she oversaw the transition from a censored media to an open one, and learned a lot about both along the way. Now, as special programs coordinator at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague, she coordinates Under (Press)ure, a monthly program that features a rotating panel of five journalists and commentators who discuss current events.

Retkova is also one of the most vocal Czech public figures calling for the release of Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani journalist and RFE/RL contributor who was recently sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on charges widely believed to have been brought in retribution for her reporting on corruption in Azerbaijan. Retkova coordinated a small exhibition on Ismayilova at DOX, where visitors can watch a video about Ismayilova’s work and imprisonment. Lady Liberty met with Retkova at DOX to talk about her own work and its impact on others.

Lady Liberty: What makes you so passionate about Khadija’s case in particular?

Daniela Retkova: I’ve been interested in human rights questions and problems in other countries since working with President Havel, that’s one part. But specifically with Khadija, she is young, she is courageous, and she is quite selfless in terms of not trying to turn the spotlight on herself. She is poised, she is optimistic, and she is trying to be someone that others can turn to.

This is another part of democracy that we have to learn. Once you live in a democracy, you begin to take certain things for granted. And here you have Khadija, an investigative journalist who made the choice to go back to Azerbaijan, knowing the authorities would try to stop her from leaving the country again. She probably was sure she would go to jail. But she sees the deep meaning in her work, and her voice needs to be heard. I cannot imagine the courage this takes. I was not jailed, but I had a trial pending, and it scares you. There are a lot of emotions going through your head.

LL: What was the trial about?

Retkova: You know, we lived under communism and I knew that something was brewing. It was not a criminal charge, it was a political thing. I use it as an example only because I was shocked that there were other people who knew it was for political reasons, but they would still cross the street so as not to be associated with me anymore. I remember the fear from others who had been my friends before. For quite a long time I was not allowed to work. You suddenly begin to look at these things from a completely different perspective.

LL: You were chief of the press department under President Havel at a time when the country was transitioning out of a censored media. Could you tell us more about the experience of that transition?

Retkova: I worked as the head of the press department for the first two years of Havel’s presidency. They were an unbelievable two years, because we were completely unknown to everybody, and we were learning as we went. I had wonderful mentors like Edward Lucas, Francis Harris, and Peter Green. They were foreign journalists, but they were willing to help me, and they stood by me. They didn’t take advantage our naivety in terms of media relations. It was a great time. And then I left to the United States where I got some media training. When I returned in 2008, I could see that we had shifted. We had become more capitalistic than the capitalist countries. Materialism rules everything. There was such a hunger to get all of the advantages of the open world--material goods, everything you could get--that you kind of get seduced by it. When the system changed, there was really no one to educate us about the fact that democracy is really one of the most difficult systems, that to have a democracy means you have to participate. We just felt, ‘okay, done, we have democracy now so we don’t need to worry.’ But it’s not that simple.

LL: What was the most important thing you learned as the chief of the press department?

Retkova: It was not easy because we were new to it. It was all kind of an adventure. We made a lot of mistakes, but we were forgiven. When I had my first briefing, I was so scared that I thought I had welcomed everybody and I was waiting for the interpreter to translate, but nothing came. So I turned to her, and she goes ‘You didn’t say anything.’ I was so scared that nothing came out, but I thought I had said something!

LL: Do you think that Havel’s ‘Power of the Powerless’ doctrine, that oppressed people can exert power by ‘living the truth,’ can hold true in a democracy as well?

Retkova: It definitely can, and many people refer back to ‘The Power of the Powerless’ and other essays of his. He was a very interesting human being. He was not without flaws, but was very troubled by injustice. Though sometimes I have the feeling that we are forgetting his ideas. Right now with the refugee crisis, in this country we are forgetting our human rights commitments. We’ve forgotten that we want to be a part of the European Union and that we have to resolve things together. I wonder what Havel would have to say about this.

LL: What does the Under (Press)ure program provide to Czech audiences?

Retkova: When we started the Under (Press)ure program, I couldn’t predict if it would continue. But I am so grateful to our journalists. I want people to listen to them as human beings, and see the person behind the articles. Nowadays people fly quickly through the news. They don’t go in depth. Once you get to know the person who is writing the articles, you start to trust that person and trust their guidance to educate yourself on critical topics.

--Sasha Peters