The many faces of Železný

Question for the director: who are you? Throughout the many manifestations of Vladimír Železný – intellectual, media mogul and now politician – observers have struggled to nail down a single profile. What follows is a survey of the man’s different faces.

ONCE UPON A TIME, Vladimír Železný was a frumpy intellectual with a head of hair like a bush caught in a windstorm. In the early ’90s, he and five associates with sparkling academic backgrounds proposed creating a TV station with educational programming, and few doubted their intentions. But soon the programming on TV Nova turned positively lurid. The public responded with adulation, and swiftly transformed Mr. Železný, the brains behind it all, into a wealthy businessman. The former intellectual now sports silk ties instead of tattered corduroy jackets. And this past autumn, his immaculately groomed visage began peering down from campaign billboards, helping propel him into office as senator from Znojmo.
So begins yet another chapter in a fascinating life. Železný has endured a litany of personal setbacks, up to and including the collapse of his family, a veritable tsunami of legal proceedings, and criminal charges including, but not limited to, tax evasion and harming a creditor. A cast of unsavory characters has been linked publicly to the Železný name, like the international art dealer who confessed to furtively slipping a Marc Chagall painting into the country at his request. Yet Železný has always remained one step ahead of his detractors. Critics, and there are many, claim that opaque political connections, a powerful media platform, and an extraordinary ruthlessness have ensured this resilience. Others point to the man’s bountiful intellect and high-octane work ethic.
The classic American film Citizen Kane was based on the life of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and was a rumination on power and corruption. The description of Železný as the “Citizen Kane” of the Czech Republic provides an irresistible parallel: Kane transforms a stodgy medium (in his case newspapers) into sensationalistic, highly popular fare; he then uses this success to leverage a political career. More poignantly, the sting of personal disaster taints the tales of both men. While Kane’s insatiable appetites – whether for women, power, or priceless pieces of art – eventually destroy him, consider what one former associate says of Železný: “all people he ever lived or worked with at some point ended up turning against him – his wife, his sons, his lawyer. Even his bodyguards turned against him.” Another former colleague who preferred to remain anonymous adds, “I don’t know anyone who has split with Železný on good terms. For him, people are just tools that serve to help reach his goals.” A Kane-like pathos on the mountain top, indeed.
But the two tales diverge at one essential point: the fictional Kane brings ruin to himself through his unquenchable solipsism, while Železný, on the other hand, seems simply untouchable. The resounding victory recently enjoyed in his senatorial race came despite much-publicized criminal proceedings. Nationwide, participation in the first round of senate voting was a mere 24%, yet Železný managed to mobilize 37% turnout and receive a stunning 50.82% of total votes cast in his district – making him the only clear victor in the entire first round (his opponent, Milan Špaček, received 18.25%).
While the government trudges through budget disarray associated with flood damage, it must also face the future possibility of having to pay 527 million dollars to Vladimír Železný’s estranged former financial partner CME, to cover damages. For those keeping count, that amounts to roughly 50 dollars (CZK 1,500) per Czech citizen – the equivalent of well over a year’s worth of license fee per household paid to support Czech public television. Meanwhile, Železný is settling into his new life as an elected official. The biggest question now is whether or not outstanding criminal charges against him will be erased through political immunity. The manner in which he ran his campaign, relying heavily on his status as public spectacle and media boss, seems to have embittered more than a few fellow senators, in whose hands the decision on granting immunity may ultimately lay. Media Tenor-Institute for Media Analysis, a division of InnoVatio publishers, estimates that Železný appeared in the media roughly 28 times more often than his main political rival (they estimate 1,726 news articles to 62). And though Železný claims not to have spent an inordinate sum on his campaign, his use of Nova was disturbingly brazen – the characteristic swirling brand design even appeared on his billboards. Disgruntled Senate chair Petr Pithart has no doubts about surrendering Železný to the authorities: “I believe that Vladimír Železný already decided this issue for me, with his repeated insistence that he was not running just for immunity.” Vice-chair of the senate Jan Ruml adds, “It would be simply shameful if he weren’t turned over.” But the collegial nature of the Senate may yet forbid the persecution of one of its members, regardless of his background. And Železný, for his part, has publicly expressed a desire for the immunity committee to “dig into” his case…and then, presumably, bury it.
Near the end of Citizen Kane, the protagonist is a vanquished old man well past his prime. Today, in the Czech Republic, Citizen Železný’s latest face is just emerging, and the result of his ambitions remains to be seen.

Jiří Grygar
Photo: V. Sixt

The perfect professional

The Czech media shower nearly constant attention on Vladimír Železný. So we know a great deal about his life as the director of TV Nova. But what was his life like prior to 1989, where the roots in the history of his activities in the new-age Czech state lie?

He was born in 1945 in Samara, a city in the Soviet Union of that time. His father, a member of (World War II hero) General Svoboda’s army staff, was being treated there for a wound. The entire family moved to Prague in 1948. After Železný graduated from high school, he decided to attend the Prague School of Social Sciences and Journalism. His outstanding abilities became evident while he was a student. Besides his “own” lectures, he also signed up for lectures on aesthetics, and economics, as well as studies at the School of Mathematics and Physics. His schoolmate, journalist Jaroslav Veis once said of him, “He was already ‘unbearably’ educated and culturally oriented as a student. He had a striking personality.”
While a student, Železný worked part-time for Czechoslovak Television (ČST), and later became an employee. Following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he took part in “anti-occupation” broadcasts. Shortly after the events of August, he departed for nine months in the UK, where he worked for the renowned Associated Press agency and also married his long-term girlfriend, Marta, who was expecting a child.
In 1975 Železný became an editor for Technický magazín, a popular science publication. While working on a story he met the astro-physicist Jiří Grygar. Grygar remembers his meeting with journalist Železný as follows: “He was the perfect professional. He asked intelligent questions, which was remarkable.” He said this impression was confirmed when they later worked together on the filming of the successful TV series, “Wide-Open Windows to the Universe”, which Grygar narrated. Železný, the screenplay writer, was able to do any of the studio work, from directing to editing. He was often better at it than the regular directors and editors, Grygar notes. After some time both men discovered that they “resonated” together, and they also began meeting outside of work. Grygar saw Železný as a model English gentleman. “He was absolutely reliable, and I could speak openly with him and trust him,” the scientist says. So later, when Železný became the director of the commercial station, Grygar became deeply disappointed by his activities and behavior.
Until 1989, Železný was also a prolific writer. He wrote many plays and serials for television (especially Slovak television) and he is the author of several radio plays. He published three popular science books, and in the second half of the ’80s he contributed to various samizdat magazines.

Martin Zika

Flirting with politics

V. Ž. & P. Pithart, 92
Photo: O. Němec
Lidové Noviny

No one who knew Vladimír Železný before November 1989 would be surprised by his entry into public life almost immediately after the fall of totalitarianism. Like many other people, Železný turned up – where else? – in politics.

You can read in the press and other publications that Železný served as the main script writer for the first successful electoral campaign of the Civic Forum (OF), an opposition movement that was formed immediately after the collapse of the communist regime. Sociologist Ivan Gabal, who also participated in the OF campaign, sees it somewhat differently. “I was the head of the electoral campaign. One day Železný came and offered his assistance, which we accepted,” Gabal recounts. Železný’s job was to prepare a concept for a television campaign, and he was later responsible for implementing it. “In my opinion, he needs firm leadership, and if the rules are clearly laid out, he’s very efficient and creative. In general, he’s capable and hard working, and our cooperation was very fruitful,” opines Gabal, adding, “when I watch TV Nova, it feels like the Vladimír Železný of those days was someone else.”
After the OF won decisively in the 1990 elections, Železný became its spokesman. However, in October of the same year, Václav Klaus was named head of the OF, and as time went by he and Železný quarrelled openly. “At that time, Železný kept a marked difference distance from Klaus,” comments Senate chairman Petr Pithart. So the future director of TV Nova resigned and became the spokesman for the Czech government and an advisor to then prime minister Pithart.
According to Pithart, Železný was an extremely intelligent, well-educated person with a fine sense of the balance and nuances of every word. And that’s exactly what he appreciated in him. “He was a responsible and reliable government spokesman,” Pithart says. While he was still working as spokes-man, Železný entered a tender for the first director of Czech Television. He lost to winner Ivo Mathé by a single vote. At the end of the spring of 1992, the Civic Movement, of which prime minister was also a member, lost the elections, which meant the end of Železný’s work for the government. In the same year, CET 21 named Železný to prepare a project for the first private nationwide television station in the Czech Republic, and the firm later received the first broadcast license.
For years there was speculation about Železný’s return to politics, and he himself made ambivalent statements, sometimes saying yes, sometimes no. His flirtation came to an end this year when he ran for the Senate and came out the only first-round winner. What kind of politician will he be? He claims that he mainly wants to be a good senator, to fight for the interests of the Znojmo region, to improve its economy. For example, he intends to waive his Senate salary to the benefit of various projects in the region, which would mean donations of over CZK 3 million during his six-year term. But some people see this as merely campaign rhetoric. “The voters accepted whatever he told them,” says Oldřich Kraipl, a ČSSD Senate candidate, adding that Železný took advantage of a shortage of information about him publicly available in the region.
He was elected to the Senate on the Independent ticket, but the question remains as to how far his independence will extend.

Klára Smolová & Martin Zika

From lobbyist to director

Photo: Marketing&Media

Vladimír Železný and TV Nova – it now seems that the two have been eternally linked. But not many people remember that Železný was not Nova’s founder.

A group of five cosmopolitan intellectuals were the original partners in CET 21, the company that received the broadcasting license in 1993: Fedor Gál, a Slovak sociologist and politician; Peter Hunčík,
a Hungarian poet, psychiatrist, and politician; Peter Kršák, a film director; Vlastimil Venclík, then director of the Film and Television Union; and Josef Alan, a sociologist for the company Film and Sociology. For Hunčík and Kršák, Nova was their second attempt at a private television station in what was then Czechoslovakia. Their first project won a Slovak tender, but when Mečiar came to power it was called off. Even so, the effort was not in vain, because when Hunčík was looking for an investor he met Mark Palmer, the American ambassador to Hungary. Later this key contact ensured financial coverage for the TV Nova project – it was Palmer who brought the resources of American businessman Ronald Lauder to Nova.
Hunčík and Kršák managed to bring Gál, Alan, and Venclík on board for the ambitious CET 21 (Central European Television for the 21st Century) project. At that time Železný was Petr Pithart’s spokesman. The “founding fathers” hired him to lobby for their project, and he also negotiated with representatives of the American Lauder, due to his excellent command of English. A highly experienced strategist, Železný made the most of this situation, stating that if the project was victorious he would have to be named director, and that’s exactly what happened.
CET 21’s avowed broadcast plan, offering educational programs and original European films, quickly vanished after the license was awarded. Železný cut the CET 21 partners off from the operation of the TV station, but he paid them USD 1,000 per month for “consulting services”. The disputes among the founders and those directed towards Železný gradually grew more intense. In the end, all of them except for Peter Kršák sold their shares to Železný. It is estimated that they received CZK 50 million each.
“Money is a great magical force, and it can even destroy relationships that have existed for decades,” says Gál. “Today my relationships with the former founders are of the past; only my friendship with Peter Hunčík survived.”

René Jakl

An advocate of opportunity

Klaus’ 60th birthday, July 2001

Many people feel that nothing is beyond the capabilities of Vladimír Železný. Whether or not this is true, one can’t help but notice that his career is marked by frequent and rather radical about-faces and changes of opinion.

For example, let’s take a look at the relationship between Vladimír Železný and Václav Klaus. At the beginning the relationship wasn’t as “idyllic” as it is now, and they were often at odds. In the beginning of the nineties Klaus was the chairman of the Civic Forum and Železný was its spokesman. However, soon after Klaus’ appointment Železný left this political coalition. The mutual, unconcealed malice between Železný and the ODS was reinforced when he became the director of TV Nova, culminating in 1997 following the collapse of the Klaus government, when TV Nova aired a story about Klaus’ alleged villa in Switzerland. Klaus sued the TV station for slander, but they then reached an out-of-court agreement whose content has never been made public, and Železný suddenly reversed field. Nova then aired critical reports on topics that aroused harangues from the ODS (the presidential couple, IPB, the Czech Television situation, and so on). Železný publicly praised Klaus as the future president, etc.
“I think Mr. Železný made a calculated move,” says Jan Ruml, a senator and the former Freedom Union chairman. Shortly after the Freedom Union’s founding, when its popularity was rapidly rising (while the ODS recorded a radical drop in voter popularity), Železný was rumored to have offered to make public compromising material concerning Klaus and the ODS during the election campaign, to the benefit of Ruml’s party. Ruml turned him down. The parties’ popularity began changing, and Železný’s offer to support the Freedom Union evaporated. “When the opposition agreement was cemented, Železný gave me clear indications as to how the cards are dealt in this country. He said he had to support those two gentlemen because he couldn’t leave anything to chance,” Ruml says.
Milan Šmíd, a media analyst and classmate of Železný at the School of Social Sciences, believes that in 1996 the TV Nova director betrayed himself. “He depended on the TV station’s economic results, and the money probably clouded his thinking. He began to act like an absolute demagogue,” says Šmíd. He points to the frequent distortion of facts and the use of half-truths and lies on the show “Call the Director”. Astro-physicist Jiří Grygar, who was a friend of Železný’s before 1989, was deeply disillusioned. “I said to myself that I knew this man, so how could he allow his TV station to broadcast such programs? An intellectual, he would certainly never watch them himself! It then occurred to me that he was the one who dreamed up the shows,” says Grygar, describing his loss of faith. He says that property is not the main thing Železný is interested in, as he had never displayed such motivation in the past. “Instead, I think that he wants to be a big boss, to manipulate people, and to determine what will take place in society,” remarks Grygar.

Martin Zika

With friends like these…

 Fred Klinkhammer
M. Růžička MAFA

VLADIMÍR ŽELEZNÝ earned the trust of foreign backers at CME by building TV Nova into a stunning financial success. That changed in April 1999, when he was sacked for alleged asset stripping. He then took to the hills – literally. From Barrandov, Železný began broadcasting with a new production partner. CME, and its CEO Fred Klinkhammer, were livid; no one could believe Železný had the nerve to pull off a coup of such proportions. The ensuing legal battle has consisted primarily of three international arbitration decisions, the first ordering Železný to pay USD 27 million to CME in compensation. This was ultimately settled in summer 2002 by Nova’s new owner, financial group PPF. The most recent decision, in what was known as the “Amsterdam” arbitration, declared the Czech government responsible for not protecting CME’s investment, and though the exact amount of the award as we go to press is undecided, CME is pressing for USD 527 million.
This whole mess could perhaps have been foreseen, as the enmity between Fred Klinkhammer and Železný had been well known. Železný was said to resent CME’s use of the healthy profits from Nova to finance less salubrious operations elsewhere in the region. Meanwhile, Klinkhammer fumed about Železný’s increasing calls for power and autonomy. When CME owners tried to appease Železný with a superficial title in 1996, says CME spokesman Michal Donath, it may have been the last straw. Says Donath, “I think that was the day when he decided to bash them over the head.” Klinkhammer’s ire has lately been more focused on officialdom than on Železný himself. He recently told The Prague Tribune: “The real question is how the Czech Republic still seems to support him and those in government who conspired with him to destroy our investment.” Železný, through his spokesman Martin Chalupský, flatly denies that forces in government aided his struggle with CME. The bitter words are not limited to Železný or Klinkhammer. Michal Donath wonders how the sordid legal affair has affected the EU’s willingness to take the Czech Republic in as a member: “I mean, would you take a prostitute into your house to live? Unless you are Jesus, no way.”

John Letzing

Selective media relationsThere are various ways to control your public image. One is to become director of your own TV station; another is to carefully select which media have access to you.

JAN CHMELÍČEK, Právo’s reporter for southern Moravia, managed to interview Železný several times during his recent senatorial campaign. Most of the headlines to his articles stated something like: “[Znojmo] could be a region with good prospects,” or “I will deliver what I promised the voters.” Železný generally can’t accuse Právo of being overly critical. A survey conducted by media agency InnoVatio shows that the smallest number of critical articles was published in Právo in the period from January to October 2002. According to Jan Potůček, former editor-in-chief of RadioTV (an internet magazine specializing in media issues), it is thanks to those articles (or lack thereof) that Právo gets the most face-to-face interviews with Železný of all the local newspapers. Potůček was not so lucky, in spite of all his efforts. In the history of RadioTV, he has not been granted a single audience.

Press Conference, August 1999
Vladimír Weiss

Another “Nova specialist”, Jaroslav Plesl, has had similar experiences. The author of dozens of articles for Euro and Týden on the TV Nova dispute, Plesl comments: “Although I requested interviews with him several times, it never happened. Euro was able to get an interview only after I left.” Železný’s spokesman Martin Chalupský offers “their” side of the issue: “every person has the right to decide who gets to interview him and who doesn’t,” he says. “But Vladimír Železný certainly does not try to avoid them. I can cite two recent interviews – one for the daily Mladá Fronta and one for Právo.”
If some media are consistently positive towards Železný, this can be largely attributed to the man himself. His press releases are remarkably emotional, and he is an extraordinary speaker. “He is able to emphasize what he wants the journalists to make note of. He repeats these parts several times, he raises his voice and makes use of pauses – he does it all very naturally,” Potůček says. Even the skeptical Plesl is often awed: “Everyone writes only what he says, even though he often says something different than he had signed elsewhere.”
In the public sphere, the more his opposition attacks, the stronger Železný appears. Far from showing any sign of unease, his reactions only become more swift and convincing. Železný can also evoke fear in many journalists, and he is well known for biting back. Michal Donath, director of the PR agency Donath-Burson-Marsteller, represents Železný’s biggest “enemy” – CME, the ex-owner of TV Nova (see sidebar on page 26). “It was a bold decision, taking on work against Železný,” he recalls. “We certainly lost several clients because of it. True, he has enormous charisma, but when someone gets in his way he looks for every possible means to destroy him. Even through the media.” After he started working for CME, the media accused Donath of having been a big shot with the StB (the former secret police). He admits that, as a one-time translator, he appeared on the list of StB collaborators, but says he held no position there. Donath’s innocence was confirmed in court last year, and he is still convinced that this attack on his reputation was connected to his choice of clients.

Jasna Sýkorová

Lining lawyers’ pockets

Police escort Železný form
interrogation, Nov. 2001
Josef Nosek, HN

Rozehnal, Šipovič, Jilg, Gánik, Sokol, Monsport, Fürst, Panušková, Kuchař, et al. These top-tier attorneys have all been employed directly or indirectly by Vladimír Železný. They certainly can’t complain about a dearth of work.

Working as a lawyer for Vladimír Železný is inspiring and interesting, but also dangerous. For example, attorneys Edita Panušková and Ondřej Kuchař spent one and a half days in police custody because of an accusation of harming a creditor. It is alleged that their assignment was to ensure that the creditor, CME, would not get its money, thanks to property transfers. For the same reasons, the court also locked up their colleague Aleš Rozehnal, who spent several months at the end of 2001 and the beginning
of 2002 in detention. He is now free, but the Chamber of Attorneys suspended his license to practice law. He was finally dismissed as CET 21’s executive due to his disputes with Železný. Not even the adroit lawyer Miroslav Šipovič split with Železný on good terms. Long ago he helped Železný set up a complicated web of legal relationships that held the media empire together. Besides Šipovič and his client, hardly anyone understood the relations among ČNTS, Beseda Holding, TV Prima, and other entities.
So far, Železný has always managed to elude the clutches of the police, even though he has faced accusations of several crimes – both the already mentioned harming of a creditor and the evasion of CZK 7 million in duty on a precious painting. His criminal prosecution is still pending, but his senatorial immunity could put it to rest once and for all. Železný’s closest relatives have also had problems with the law. In 1998 his former wife Marta was fined for failure to pay duty, albeit a much smaller sum. She didn’t declare jewelry and furs worth a total of about ATS 300,000. His son David has had greater problems with the law. Three women, including his former wife, accused him of rape. Even Tomáš Sokol, a well-known criminal lawyer, was unable to save David Železný from prison. In January of 2001, the Prague Regional Court sent David to prison in Znojmo for five years – precisely to the place where his father was victorious in the senatorial elections the following year.

René Jakl

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