Menue_phone
13.08.2018

How Czech journalists survive in Babisistan

by Lucie Sykorova

 “Journalists are dung, faeces and cesspits, hyenas and stupid people who try to  brainwash us and they should be liquidated.“ Czech people have already heard such public statements for years from the president Milos Zeman. As Reporters Without Borders notes,  President Milos Zeman brandished a dummy Kalashnikov rifle inscribed with the word “journalists” at a press konference ... suggesting they should be “liquidated” while standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Shock and outrage as Czech president abuses journalists https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:David_Sedlecký

Other politicians are not lagging behind with insults and assaults on journalists, and they encourage their voters to do the same. When we add the influence of oligarchs on the media and increasing economic pressure on newsrooms, it´s clear that Czech journalism is facing a deep crisis. 

At the moment most Czech media newsrooms are owned by one of five oligarchs. The Centre for Media Pluralism and Freedom at the European University in Fiesole, Italy, rates the country at ‘ High Risk‘ for transparency of media ownership, cross-media concentration of ownership, commercial and owner influence over editorial content and political independence.

The oligarchisation of the biggest media houses after 2008 has led to self-censorship and lower quality of content, which more and more often is subjugated to commercial or political interests. But some new high-quality media are also being developed, in spite of financial problems. Public trust in media and journalists is at lowest level ever. Furthermore, there are question marks about the trustworthiness of public service media and traditional regional media have totally resigned from doing investigative journalism. Noting that all the Czech media are at ‚high risk‘ of political control and lack of editorial autonomy, the CMPF Media Monitor finds that in the Public Service Media (PSM) “the appointment procedure lacks proper safeguards and remains vulnerable to political influence.“

Even at the local and regional level, media owners are getting involved in politics. One example in Pilsen: the regional editor in chief of Plzensky denik (Vltava Labe Media) is Aleš Tolar. The political movement is Pro Plzen - his profile is on the website. Tolar has been already been active in politics during this period  - as an independent representative in the district Malesice, where he lives. Now he has moved across from the media into party politics.

The situation is critical, because journalists in the Czech republic are not united in naming these problems. Most active journalists are not members of the Syndicate of Journalists and no other professional organisation exists for journalists. 

Investigative journalists intimidated by Czech police

Three of the most respected Czech investigative journalists Sabina Slonkova, Jaroslav Kmenta and Janek Kroupa were repeatedly interrogated by police during this year because of reporting about the Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. In April  2018 they issued a common statement. 

“Up to now we faced only personal and verbal attacks from politicians. But in the last few months the situation changed: all three of us were repeatedly questioned by police and the General Inspection of the security forces“, the journalists wrote in the statement. 

We are sure that this investigation aims to make us uncertain, to intimidate us or our sources, or to discourage us from doing our job. In the past we also faced police interrogation several times. But this time it´s apparently a co-ordinated action with a secondary target – to criminalise the investigative journalism. 

Both Jaroslav Kmenta and Sabina Slonkova work for new media established after 2013, when Andrej Babiš bought the media house Mafra. They are reporting systematically on Babiš´s cases and conflict of interests. Janek Kroupa is an investigative reporter at the Czech public broadcaster and the author of a reportage about the dubious farming practices of the Prime Minister’s company Agrofert. At the beginning of 2018 the director of the Czech broadcaster Rene Zavoral publicly rebuked him for its reportage.

According to Agrofert, and also to some members of the Public TV-and Radio Council, the reportage was partial and poor quality. Zavoral had three analyses prepared about this case. After receiving them, he chose only the critical one and ignored the other two which were not critical. He declared that reporters in Czech broadcasting must get some training to avoid such “mistakes” in the future. Most Czech journalists and also many employees of the Czech broadcaster evaluated it as an attempt to limit reporters in their work. More than 200 signed a petition against it. 

Andrej Babiš, the “Czech Berlusconi”

The situation in Czech media got worse after 2013, when Andrej Babiš, the owner of the food and agro-industrial group Agrofert and the Czech Republic’s second richest man, entered politics and took over the biggest media house, the MAFRA media group. He thereby got control over the two most influential dailies (Lidové Novinyand Mlada Fronta Dnes) and the most popular news website (iDnes.cz). He also acquired one of the biggest privately-owned radio stations (Radio Impuls), the music TV channel (Óčko), and added the free weekly Tydenik 5+2, which he founded in 2012. At the moment, the MAFRA media house is allegedly negotiating the acquisition of publishing house Bauer Media v.o.s., which publishes around 30 magazines (mostly life-style and tabloid). At the time of writing, this information hasn´t yet been confirmed officially. 

Public service media under direct state control?

A phenomenon of Czech politics is the success of  Tomio Okamura, the Chairman of the radical right-wing Party for Direct Democracy (SPD) and former Vice-Chairman of the Chamber of Deputies. His party received 11% of the vote in the parliamentary elections in October 2017, although his campaign was based only on the fear of migrants and islamisation, which is not a current problem at all in the Czech republic. (There are practically no muslim migrants in the country). Tomio Okamura was also accused of antisemitism and holocaust denial. In one of his latest statements he described the European Union as being a “crazy project of neomarxism”.

He is one of the most hostile politicians towards journalists. He constantly insults and disgraces them, selecting who gets accreditation to press conferences organised by his party, and who gets answers from them and who not, which is becoming a “popular” habit of Czech politicians. Tomio Okamura also publicly called for bringing the public service media, Czech television, and Czech radio, under direct state control. And here he has got one major ally – Andrej Babiš. He has hinted more than once that he would not be against the idea of nationalising Czech TV.

Andrej Babiš, Tomio Okamura and Miloš Zeman concur that TV Barrandov is their favourite TV channel. That channel is owned by another rich tycoon, Jaromir Soukup, a former boxer. On his TV channel he´s personally the only anchorman of all evening political shows and interviews. The channel appears to ignore all the rules and principles of journalism. The message which these politicians send to the public by promoting and favouring this TV channel is clear: high–quality and professional journalism is not needed. On the contrary…

ECPMF plans conference in Czech Republic

Following the success of earlier conferences in Spain and Ireland tackling the Europe-wide concentration of media ownership, the next in the ECPMF#newsocracy series takes the form of an international symposium for EU policy makers, stakeholders, journalists’ associations, and trade unions, individual media practitioners (especially business correspondents), media freedom campaigners and academic researchers.

It will take place in December 2018 in the Czech Republic.

Footnote: Agrofert Holding includes more than 250 companies in 22 countries (mostly agriculture, chemical and food industry. Since 2013 also German Bakery Lieken AG), yearly turnover is cca 167 billion CZK ( = cca 6,2 bil. EUR)In January 2017 transfered Andrej Babiš AGROFERT holding into a trust fund(due to „Lex Babiš“ – the new law about conflict of interests). At the beginning of August 2018, the Czech bureau of Transparency International proposed a motion to municipality because of suspicion of an offence – the lawyers believe, that he still controls his companies.

Author: Lucie Sykorova is a freelance journalist from Czech republic and an activist for better conditions for journalists. She has eight years experience in print and online media. Since February 2016 she´s member of ECPMF, since July 2018 also Chair of the Supervisory Board.