Czech people demand resignation of Prime Minister and media owner Babiš

by Renata Rat

Tens of thousands of people in the Czech Republic have been protesting against Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and his newly appointed Justice Minister Marie Benesova.

Protests Pilsen Czech Republic Protesters in the Pilsen Old Town, Czech Republic, 6. May 2019. (Photo: Lucie Sykorova)

Benesova was appointed as the Minister of Justice after her predecessor resigned earlier this month, when the police recommended that Babiš should be charged in connection with a scam. The Prime Minister, who is at the same time the owner of the country’s biggest media house, MAFRA, is accused of abusing European Union funds amounting to €2 million.

Babiš called the allegations 'incredible filth'. The protesters believe that Benesova might try to clear Babiš of the charges against him. Their concerns are well-founded – Benesova has expressed the intention to close the State Attorney’s Office, which would also be responsible for Babiš’s case. Instead of maintaining the 4-step judicial system, she proposes to create a 3-step system. And she previously voted against a police request to strip Babiš of his parliamentary immunity.

'We are not blind'

The protests, now in their second week, have been organised by A Million Moments for Democracy, an NGO founded after the parliamentary elections in 2017. The protests took place in the capital Prague, and also in Brno and Pilsen. Organisers estimate that at least 20,000 people took part in the demonstration on Prague’s Old Town Square on 6. May. Protesters were carrying Czech and EU flags, shouting slogans such as 'Independent Justice' and 'We are not blind'.

Protests Pilsen Czech Republic 2 Protester banner in the Pilsen Old Town, Czech Republic, 6. May 2019. (Photo: Lucie Sykorova)

Under the rule of Prime Minister Babiš and his ally, President Miloš Zeman, the country has been facing not only a crisis of the judicial system but also of press freedom. President Zeman has publicly called journalists 'dung, faeces and cesspits, hyenas and stupid people who try to brainwash us', and most media outlets are owned by oligarchs.

In 2013, now-Prime Minister Babiš took over the biggest media house, the MAFRA group. He also owns Agrofert, a massive agricultural and food production concern. The oligarchisation of the biggest media outlets and media ownership concentration in the Czech Republic have led to self-censorship among journalists and lower quality content that is highly influenced by political or commercial interests. This was demonstrated at the ECPMF’s Prague Newsocracy conference in December 2018.

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Lucie Sykorova, a freelance journalist from Czech Republic and Chair of the ECPMF Supervisory Board is concerned:

"As journalists, we are of course not only afraid of losing the independence of the justice system, but also the environment for free media. We are afraid of losing the independence of public service media - we can observe how members of the Czech Radio Council are slowly being replaced by people loyal to the government, and also the position of the Czech public TV is not secure. According to our law, the parliament has to agree to the annual report of the Czech TV twice a year. If members of parliament don’t agree on two reports in succession, the parliament can dissolve the Czech TV Council and name a completely new one. At the moment, there are five reports that haven't yet been agreed on - allegedly there was no time to debate them during the parliamentary sessions. President Zeman has already advised the members of parliament to not approve those reports in order to replace the Council."

Sykorova voiced her fears at ECPMF’s Leipzig celebration of World Press Freedom Day.

On the World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Czech Republic has fallen 27 places during the last four years (from position 13 in 2015 to 40 in 2019). The country is even five ranks lower than neighbouring Slovakia, where a journalist was murdered last year. "And we are afraid of falling down further, following Poland and Hungary," Sykorova said.