A report on the decline of freedom in the Czech media

The free dissemination of information and critical commentary towards the holders of the political power in the Czech Republic decreased rapidly between 2014 and 2017. It manifested noticeably this May, when the European parliament debated the threat to Czech media freedom. This happened after an anonymous twitter account released recordings of talks between the minister of finance Andrej Babiš and a reporter of daily newspaper Mladá fronta DNES, which belongs to Andrej Babiš. Both men were discussing the timing for publishing besmirching information about Babiš´s political opponents (and contemporary coalition partners) from the social democratic party.

This downfall of freedom and professionalism in journalism is deeply tied to the ownership changes of pivotal Czech daily newspapers. It is also a reflection of political pressure towards journalists in general, which has no precedent since democracy was restored in our country almost twenty eight years ago.

The following report brings comprehensive information about the scope, stances and the level of independence in major Czech media, based on an in-depth analysis by the Free Czech Media association of journalists.

Public television and public radio

The members of the deciding organs of Czech public media (The Czech Television Council and the Czech Radio Council) are elected in parliament based on the recommendations of political parties, and they represent a pluralistic spectrum of opinions. Hence there is relative freedom in this type of media and basic ethical and professional standards are respected.

Both Czech public media platforms fulfil their duties correctly in terms of foreign reporting, albeit a little less in terms of domestic reporting. They provide enough room for voices from both the government and the opposition. The news reporting on serious international agenda is balanced, providing objective information about the war in Ukraine and the migration crisis. Public media do not participate in the massive pro-Russian propaganda, typical for the contemporary public discussion in the Czech Republic, and they also do not participate on the anti-refugee campaign of the populists.

However, when it comes ANO, the most powerful political movement in the Czech Republic founded by billionaire Andrej Babiš, the situation is more complicated. During the recent election period, the Czech Television rather suppressed some negative information about Andrej Babiš. Information about his subsidy fraud and tax machinations practically appeared solely in the journalistic programme Reportéři ČT (The Reporters of Czech Television), which is usually broadcast in the late evening hours with lower viewer ratings. The main news programme of the Czech Television, the 7 o´clock news, did not report negative information about Babiš that were in fact obtained by its own reporters. Critical opinions about Andrej Babiš appeared in a commentary programme on the second Czech Television channel (with lower ratings), which is broadcast at 10 o´clock in the evening.

The situation slightly improved after the European Parliament debated the manipulation of Czech media in May. The news coverage of public television news channel ČT24 significantly improved this month after the police asked the parliament to waive Babiš´s parliamentary immunity for him to be formally prosecuted for subsidy fraud.

The Czech Radio has provided very little negative information about Andrej Babiš on its primary channel ČRo 1-Radiožurnál (which has very high ratings). More negative information on Babiš appeared on a commentary channel ČRo PLUS, which has very low ratings. However, the situation has worsened rapidly after the appointment of a new director of the Czech Radio, who is affiliated to Babiš´s political movement. However, the news coverage of the Czech Radio is mostly objective in other areas.

The critics of public media point to ostentatious balancing of information and opinions to the detriment of factual reporting. This obsession with balancing and giving space to communists or many representatives of Babiš´s political movement is often being summarized in the following anecdote: ten minutes for the Jews, ten minutes for Hitler. Public media give a lot of space to journalists from the publishing house Mafra, which is owned by Andrej Babiš, and from the publishing house Economia (which belongs to Zdeněk Bakala), whilst journalists from other media are rarely invited to speak. This is a mistake. Ridiculous situations emerge when people from Babiš´s movement comment on the police allegations of fraud against Babiš, as if they were independent observers. As employees of Andrej Babiš, they are obviously downplaying these allegations.

Newspapers and magazines

The situation of newspapers and their respective online versions has been strongly affected by the departure of three German publishers and one Swiss publisher from the Czech media market. The newspapers fell into the hands of billionaires whose main goal is not the commercial success of their media, and who do not care about the principles of social responsibility and professional standards. Their main goal is to use these media platforms to support their business activities or political ambitions. The most obvious example of this is Andrej Babiš, who purchased the publishing house Mafra, including two essential daily newspapers Mladá fronta DNES and Lidové noviny. This purchase happened at the same time that Babiš began his political campaign and led his movement into the parliament and into the government.

The following publishing houses left the Czech Republic in recent years.

Handelsblatt, Düsseldorf (Holtzbrinck, Stuttgart).

This company owned the newspaper Hospodářské noviny, the weekly magazine Respekt and online news server Aktuálně.cz, which are all part of the publishing house Economia. Now, all these outlets belong to financier and mining company owner Zdeněk Bakala. There also speculations about potential transfer of said media to another billionaire.

Rhei­nisch-Ber­gi­sche Ver­lags­ge­sell­schaft, Düsseldorf (Rheinische Post)

This company published newspapers Mladá fronta DNES, Lidové noviny and a Prague based daily Metro. Mafra was later purchased by billionaire Andrej Babiš, the owner of the chemo-agricultural holding Agrofert and the chairman of the political movement ANO.

Verlagsgruppe Passau, Pasov (Passauer Neue Presse)

This company used to own a monopolistic network of regional daily newspapers that are all part of the publishing house Vltava-Labe Press. This publishing house was later purchased by the financial group Penta, whose most visible co-owner is a well known developer Marek Dospiva.

Ringier, Curych (Blicke)

Axel Springer, Berlin (Bild, Welt)

These publishing houses used to co-own the publishing house Ringier-Axel Springer, which owned the strongest Czech daily newspaper Blesk and a weekly political and social magazine Reflex. The company later transferred to Czech Media Invest, which is owned by billionaires Daniel Křetínský and Patrik Tkáč. These men also own an energy holding and mostly deal with Russian gas.


Print situation assessment

Looking at this assessment, it is more than obvious that the Czech print media transferred from the hands of western professional publishers into the hands of eastern businessmen with no previous media experience or competence. The only exception to this rule is the former communist daily newspaper Právo (owned by Zdeněk Porybný, a former communist who clearly got it from the formerly ruling Communist party after the fall of the communist regime).

There are three politically relevant media publishing houses:

Mafra (Babiš)

CNC News – Blesk (Křetínský)

Economia – Bakala

The daily newspapers Mladá fronta DNES and Lidové noviny, formerly published by Mafra, have been considered to be the most influential Czech daily newspapers. Their newsrooms used to set the news agenda in the country and pursue investigative journalism and critical commentary. Both these titles had represented the liberal and pro-reform movement and were always close to the centre-right political parties, at least opinion-wise.

The daily newspaper Blesk openly supported Andrej Babiš on several occasions, helping him to achieve a popular image, and is part of Babiš´s PR strategy. There are speculations about a pact between Andrej Babiš and Daniel Křetínský. Both men refrain from personal attacks against each other, which enables the energy holding of Daniel Křetínský to maintain a steady position on the state controlled energy market.

The media outlets under the ownership of Economia advocate a point of view, under the pretence of journalistic objectivity and respectability, that Andrej Babiš should not be overly criticised, since excessive criticism supposedly helps his cause. This claim contributes to an oppressing atmosphere, where critical journalists look like freaks and are frequently attacked, even by people who usually do not support Andrej Babiš. Erik Tabery, the editor in chief of Respekt magazine, who published articles about the inevitable cooperation with Andrej Babiš, has proven to be the most prominent silencer of critics coming from the intellectual and respectable circles. The possible source of this latently pro-Babiš stance is Tabery´s apparent aversion against traditional political parties, which were also a thorn is Václav Havel´s side. The former Czech president once wrote that the partisan parliamentary system has been overcome.

The former deputy to the minister of interior and Havel´s co-worker Martin Fendrych openly supported ANO when it tried to maintain its influence over the anticorruption department of the Czech police.

Other print outlets do not have a significance, except for the Reflex magazine, which occasionally publishes criticism of Andrej Babiš. Pavel Šafr, the former editor in chief of Reflex, was ousted because he was “excessive” in his criticism of Andrej Babiš.


Commercial televisions

The fairness of political competition in the Czech Republic is also dependent on two essential commercial television stations, TV NOVA and TV Prima. TV NOVA falls under the ownership of American company Central European Media Enterprises (CME), the key decision maker in this company is Time Warner. TV NOVA has a German CEO, Christoph Mainusch.

The news reporting nature of the most watched television station in the Czech Republic has been determined by Martin Švehlák, who has openly admitted his contacts to Andrej Babiš. Švehlák has imprinted such a profile to the news reporting of TV NOVA, so that Babiš, the most powerful politician in the country, is satisfied. This peculiar relationship manifested itself in the recent firing of two TV NOVA reporters, Emma Smetana and Hanuš Hanslík, who had been professionally fulfilling their news reporting responsibilities. But when they attempted to report information about the scandals of Andrej Babiš, they hit resistance. TV NOVA rarely presents such information, and when it does, it does so in a way that can hardly do any damage to Andrej Babiš.

TV NOVA has also favoured extremist forces of fighters against refugees and Islam.

The billionaire Ivan Zach owns TV Prima. Its news reporting is favourable to president Miloš Zeman and Andrej Babiš. This television is notoriously known for a big and unfortunate scandal that showed how the front office aimed to manipulate  news reporting. In 2016, the online website HlídacíPes.org published testimonies about how the TV Prima front office, along with news reporting editors, pushed for negative presentation of the migration crisis in the news reporting of TV Prima.

HlídacíPes literally claims that the “objections of some reporters that the negative of impression of said news reports contradict the journalistic codex were dismissed on the basis that balancing, objectivity or journalistic codex will not be addressed in the several following months.”

After this meeting, which informed the reporters about the required focus of their work, the news reporting changed and there were indeed more negative news and less positive ones.