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Czech Republic: Press freedom spirals downwards

Aureliusz M. Pedziwol
May 3, 2018

A Slovakian journalist was murdered, and in Hungary and Poland media are coming under increasing pressure from the ruling Fidesz and PiS parties. But changes for the worse in the Czech Republic are less well known.

A sign with a camera crossed out, symbolizing restriction on press freedom
Image: picture-alliance/ZB/J. Büttner

In this year's global ranking of press freedom, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Czech Republic has slipped eleven positions to place 34. Although the result may be better than that of Hungary and Poland, there are serious reasons for concern.

Czech President Milos Zeman's presentation at a press conference last year has become symbolic of the new relationship between politics and the media in the Czech Republic. In front of running cameras he held speeches praising himself, while holding an imitation AK-47 rifle. In place of a cartridge chamber, the fake weapon had a bottle of his beloved herbal liqueur, Becherovka. But on the gun's shaft were the words: "na novinaru" – for the journalists.

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‘Idiots, crap and excrement'

For the RSF, this "hard to imagine" incident in October was blatant proof that media freedom in the Czech Republic is under threat." In times of advancing populism, inciting hatred and contempt towards journalists is playing with fire. Unfortunately, we are also increasingly seeing this in EU member states," the current RSF report's authors wrote.

It wasn't the first time Zeman had insulted journalists. Years ago, in an interview with the newspaper MF Dnes, he divided them into two groups: "journalistic prostitutes" on the one hand and "self-confident idiots" on the other. And he was even more derogatory when speaking on the private Czech television station, Prima, where he said, "Journalists are idiots, crap and excrement."

Read more: After Jan Kuciak murder, killing journalists now 'within realm of possibility'

Czech President Milos Zeman
Czech President Zeman has been openly hostile to journalists, including at his swearing-in ceremonyImage: Reuters/D.W. Cerny

When businesspeople turn politicians

However, there is another, perhaps even more important reason for the Czech Republic's poor rating. According to this year's RSF report, "The level of concentration of media ownership has become critical since the new oligarchs began to buy daily newspapers thanks to their wealth in order to strengthen their influence." As an example, they name the current head of government, who owns "one of the Czech Republic's most influential newspapers."

Andrej Babis is a Slovak native who lives in the Czech Republic and is the second-richest man in the country. He is the owner of the Agrofert food corporation and in 2013 took over the Mafra company from the Rheinisch-Bergische printing house and publishing group. This made him the owner of two important daily newspapers: Lidove noviny and MF Dnes. After then becoming deputy prime minister and finance minister, people christened him "Babisconi," a portmanteau referring to Italian politician and media mogul Berlusconi.

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But Babis was not the first Czech magnate to decide to get in on the media business. The forerunner was Zdenek Bakala, owner of the OKD and CMD coal mines in the country's northeast and also one of the country's richest people. Despite heavy losses in the coal business, he is still listed as number ten on the 2017 Forbes list of Czech billionaires. In 2006, he acquired the weekly publication Respekt, and in 2008 he bought the publishing house Economia from the Handelsblatt publishing group, as well as several periodicals.

Andrej Babis
'Babisconi': Billionaire businessman, media mogul and now prime ministerImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Cizek

Other Czech billionaires have also entered the media business. In 2014, the German-Swiss publishing house Ringier Axel Springer decided to leave the Czech Republic. The Czech News Center, a company half-owned by Daniel Kretinsky (the fifth-richest Czech) became the new owner of tabloids Blesk and Aha.

A year later, the Passau publishing group sold its Czech business to Penta Investments, a company registered in Cyprus but owned by Czech billionaire Marek Dospiva (ninth place on the Forbes list). This meant that the last big newspaper, the daily Denik, published in countless local versions, also fell into a Czech oligarch's hands.

Bleak perspective

But still, the Czech Republic remains in place 34 on RSF's ranking, far ahead of its Visegrad partners Poland (58) and Hungary (73), where the public media's point of view has become indistinguishable from the policies of the ruling party. The hidden support of government-linked media through advertisements by state-owned enterprises has also attracted RSF's attention and explains the downward trend in press freedom.

However, the changes that have been pushed through in Budapest and Warsaw can be reversed if there is a change of power in the capitals. But a change of government in Prague will have no influence on the ownership structure of the Czech media industry.

And the concentration of media in the Czech Republic looks set to continue. Only two weeks ago, press agencies reported that Daniel Kretinsky's Czech Media Invest bought Czech, Polish and Romanian radio stations from the French media conglomerate, Lagardere, for 73 million euros. In the long term, the increasing concentration of Czech media could have far more negative consequences than the now very painful but quickly reversible arrangements in Poland or Hungary.