The world according to Havel: Troubled by Russia

Jakub Unger and Pavel Vondra
4. 10. 2007 15:00
Czech ex-president "does Bono", runs a paper for a day
How do we get out of this? World according to Havel and his friend Aleš Lamr
How do we get out of this? World according to Havel and his friend Aleš Lamr | Foto: Repro Tomáš Adamec

Prague - Russia is the world's greatest worry today. That is a message to the readers of Hospodářské noviny (HN) daily which for the first time tried out the concept of inviting a celebrity to run the paper for a day as its editor-in-chief.

Former Czech president Václav Havel is responsible for shaping today´s copy of HN, considered by many to be the only "quality" paper worth its name in today´s Czech media landscape.

Havel thus tried to walk in the shoes of another perennial Nobel Peace Prize candidate, Paul Hewson, better known as Bono Vox.

The lead singer and lyricist of the Irish rock band U2 who has been relentlessly campaigning for the debt relief and HIV/AIDS eradication in Africa was invited last year by similarly inclined British daily The Independent to champion the cause as its one-day editor-in-chief.

World according to Bono
World according to Bono | Foto: Aktuálně.cz

So where did Bono and Havel as editors-in-chief look alike? The both chose an artist with a highly developed characteristic style.

The Irish singer chose Damien Hirst, best remembered for his shark pickled in formaldehyde, to turn the front page of The Independent into a highly stylized call for action.

Havel had an arguably tougher job on his hands in convincing the conservative HN to use his friend Aleš Lamr's colourful painting on the front page and several other pages inside where normally a photograph would do.

Much like Bono, Havel was also able to make use of his internationally known friends and their opinion pieces: former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Russian chess master and opposition leader Garri Kasparov, Polish dissident (both under communism and under today's ultra-conservative government) Adam Michnik or CNN chief-correspondent  Christiane Amanpour.

Most of them are to appear at next week's Forum 2000 in Prague, an annual prestigious conference which Havel founded while still in office.


Tudy, přátelé!

In HN on Russia

  • Václav Havel: "Russia does not know where it begins and ends. Aware of its historical borders, be it from the tsarist or Soviet period, it still considers them their own."
  • Madeleine Albright: "Europe has to be strong and united and work with the US (to balance Russia's influence). But it is also important not to return to the times when we all saw Russia as enemy."
  • Grigory Yavlinsky: "The constant talk about democratic Russian opposition's alleged failure to pursue a united path is nothing but propaganda. The unification is ongoing."
  • Garri Kasparov: "Today we are not fighting to win the elections in Russia, but to have a free and fair ballot at all."

As far as the overall concept is concerned, Havel and Bono went their own separate ways, Bono sticking to a global topic he has been long campaigning about, which is eradication of poverty and AIDS in Africa, whereas Havel, after alleged consultations with the HN editorial staff, chose the Central European problem of post-communism as the focal point.

Design-wise and content-wise there are big differences as well. Bono's "red issue" of The Independent was a unique feat, its visual form unparalleled in the mainstream British press.

Havel's copy does not stray far from the traditional HN despite some of the new features.

One notable diversion is the strip running across the top of several pages where Havel's own catchphrase from the days of the Velvet Revolution in 1989 - "Truth and love will prevail over lies and hatred" - is turned into a question in past tense and answers are solicited from various public figures.

Aside from that, his own front page editorial titled Responsibility as fate and two interviews he conducted recently in Moscow with Russian opposition leaders (The Other Russia's Garri Kasparov and Yabloko's Grigory Yavlinsky), it is not so clear where Havel's HN begins and ends, to borrow his phrase, which he used for commenting on today's Russia.

Let's rock'n'roll! Typical Forum 2000. Where Dalai Lama meets Joan Baez
Let's rock'n'roll! Typical Forum 2000. Where Dalai Lama meets Joan Baez | Foto: Ondřej Besperát, Aktuálně.cz

Reader is left guessing whether some of the news reports appearing in the paper represent the ex-president's view of the world, or they just emerged like they normally would on any other guest-editor-in-chief-less day.

Bono accepted the invitation from the liberal Independent with one condition: that half of the proceeds from the following day's sales would be used for humanitarian aid in Africa. Sponsors for the copy were then found in American Express, Motorola and Gap, major companies behind the global charity campaign RED.

Havel's HN is full of commercial adverts with the exception of the black and white page 9, where his aforementioned brainchild Forum 2000´s upcoming conference is advertised.


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