Albanian ‘Ministry of Propaganda’: Where we are today?

Albanian ‘Ministry of Propaganda’: Where we are today?

New government Media and Information Agency (MIA) up and running. Lines of communication between the Albanian government and the media have long been tenuous. Whoever is in power picks and chooses the media they interact with and feeds them with information to report, whereas those who are out of favour or ask difficult questions often find themselves sidelined.

By IPI Contributor Alice Taylor

Whether journalists ask spokespersons for comment or file formal requests, information is hard to come by. Some portals report a response rate in the single digits, while those who do get a response often find key information withheld.

A 2021 report found that the Albanian Ministry of Health was the worst performing institution in the region in terms of answering freedom of information (FoI) requests. The institution also had the highest number of complaints filed with the Data Commissioner.

This is despite the fact that Albania has one of the world’s top 10 best FoI laws. The implementation of this law continues to face challenges and difficulties as public institutions remain silent, don’t answer requests, and classify increasing amounts of information.

In April, the Data Commissioner tabled changes to the law that would give him more power to demand information be made public. This came after a record 992 complaints against state institutions during 2021 for failing to provide requested information to media, civil society, and the public. With an increase in complaints of 39% on the year before, the commissioner found in favour of 700 of the complaints.

These facts and figures are just the tip of the iceberg but give an idea of the need for change in Albanian society. But a set of recent measures introduced by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government have left the media community concerned.

Introduction to the Information and Media Agency

Following his reelection for a third mandate in April 2021, the first decision of Prime Minister Edi Rama’s new government was to create the Media and Information Agency (MIA), dubbed the ‘Ministry of Propaganda’ by critics.

The MIA functions as a public legal entity, under the prime minister, based in Tirana and funded from “the state budget, donations, and other legal sources”. According to the government, its mission is to ensure transparency regarding policies, activities, projects, events and other matters including acts of the Council of Ministers and any state institution.

Its sole responsibility is to inform and communicate with the public and the media and prepare government positions on issues of public interests. In addition, it creates press releases and media content to supplement the reams of pre-edited footage produced by Rama’s personal TV channel, which is currently sent to every newsroom. The MIA also monitors media and “means of mass communications” to assess opinions on the government.

The general director of the new agency is Endri Fuga, Rama’s long-time communications chief, who is accountable and answerable only to him. Fuga holds a position equal to that of Minister of State, a position at the same level of an elected MP but without accountability before parliament or the public. Each ministry and government department currently has its spokesperson, appointed by the minister. Requests for comment and information are addressed to that spokesperson, who then responds.

The new system is supposed to work similarly, except the MIA manages everything behind the scenes. All responses are coordinated centrally, and press materials are created and sent out from one location. Communication with the media or members of the public can only take place with the explicit authority of Fuga, who also has the power to hire and fire spokespersons.

‘German model’

The Albanian government has consistently claimed that the MIA was built “exactly” on the German model, following two visits to the country. Exit asked – a partner media in Germany – to explain how the German model works. They explained that Germany has a government agency that is the first stop for journalists to put forward media inquiries: the Federal Press Office. This entity organises three press conferences a week and journalists are invited to answer specific questions here and in federal press conferences.

In Germany, the responsibility for appointing spokespersons is down to each institution, whereas in Albania, it lies with Fuga. Furthermore, Albanian fact-checking site reported that the agencies were not similar. “As far as I know, there is no such agency [the same structure as MIA] in Germany, I have never heard of it,” said, German fact-checking organisation. The website of the Federal Press Office also explains that the institution does not supervise the media in any way, something the Albanian MIA does.

For Koloreto Cukali, the head of the Albanian Media Council, it is clear that the similarities are negligible. “First, ‘based’ is the wrong term to adjudicate it. They got the idea from there and adopted it according to their ‘wish’. Second, our society, media and government are different and work substantially different from German,” he told Exit.

Albanian media lawyer Dorian Matlija was also quick to debunk the government’s claim. “It has a similar name but not similar functions. In Germany, the main objective is to coordinate between ministries…It is not obligatory for ministers, and no one is overlooking ministers. It is totally different,” he told Exit.

The situation has raised concerns amongst the country’s media community, particularly when combined with other legislative and institutional measures. In 2018, the government put forward an anti-defamation package to bring online media under state supervision, with media facing high fines for vague violations.

While the package has undergone several facelifts in the following years, the latest public draft is not in line with Venice Commission recommendations or EU standards. There have been multiple calls to drop the package, but it sits on the agenda of parliament, where it can be passed at any moment with a simple ruling party majority.

In addition, the Albanian Audiovisual Media Authority, which would take on the role of judge and jury as per the above package, is now headed by Armela Krasniqi, another long-time comms aid of Rama and the Socialist Party. She was voted into the role against the calls of the European Commission by parliament, which at the time did not feature an opposition.

When you put all the pieces of the puzzle together, it is not hard to come to the conclusion of total state capture of public interest information.

“If you combine intimidated media and no guarantee for free speech, with lack of access to information, confused journalists, and a centralised agency, you see the big picture. Everything is related to how the government wants to control the message from the government to the media and media to the public,” Matlija explains. “The government wants to create its own landscape and narrative.”

Where we are now

While the decision to set up the MIA agency was taken in September, it has been functional since January 2022. Described by Fuga as “a modest agency in terms of budget and assets”, it is currently funded entirely from the state budget.

The agency currently has a total of 69 employees spread across six directorates; the Directorate of Citizen Information, the Directorate of Media Information, the Directorate of Information of Institutions, the Directorate of Coordination of Ministries and Agencies, the Directorate of Production and Events and Directorate of Finances.

According to Deputy Secretary of the Council of Ministers Elira Kokona, the agency’s budget is in total EUR 1.93 million, including salaries, insurance contributions, capital expenditures and operating services.

Journalists needing information are not convinced that it is worth the money. The editor-in-chief of Faktoje, Viola Keta, said: “There has been a decrease in transparency since January 2022. In my opinion, there is a misuse of the law on the right to information.” She added that answers were not received within the legal deadline in more cases than before, meaning journalists had to take the matter to the Data Commissioner.

In a parliamentary hearing, Fuga said that the only thing that has changed is that “there is better coordination on issues that affect several ministries together”.

Keta said that since the MIA started, refusals to provide information appear more coordinated and are using the same response, namely, an article of the transparency law which provides no answer to the question.


The Albanian government has been adamant that the purpose of the agency is to promote better transparency and communication with the media. Exit asked Cukali if he felt this was genuine.

“In Albania, the government is opaque and non-transparent; it has made a habit to keep successfully secret every decision and operation. Getting the information that is due by law is already a ‘hell’ for independent media or journalists. This institution will add another layer of opacity to the information flow,” he said.

Cukali explained that there are concerns of troll factories operated by the government, backed up with in-depth investigations, that could be pushed through the new agency. “There is fear that these troll factories will be included in the new “Ministry” and paid by the taxpayers,” he said.

But are these fears justified? Cukali and Matlija both agree that we will just have to wait and see, although hopes are not high.

What the government says

Exit reached out to Fuga to ask for figures on requests made and granted since January, what methods are used for media monitoring, if monitoring includes social media, and for a response to allegations from media that transparency has actually decreased since MIA was established.

Having previously taken issue with reports in multiple media, including Exit, that criticised his public claims in parliament the MIA was based on the German model, his response focussed predominantly on that.

Fuga replied by dismissing the claims made by some media, adding “the answer is no, we respond to everyone and our job is not to keep numbers, but to respond. As I am doing to you now, even though your question is baseless.”

Even when it comes to the functioning of the agency, it seems that transparency will remain hard to come by, let alone when it comes to getting answers on important documents or government actions.

This article is part of IPI’s reporting series “Media freedom in Europe in the shadow of Covid”, which comprises news and analysis from IPI’s network of correspondents throughout the EU. Articles do not necessarily reflect the views of IPI or MFRR. This reporting series is supported by funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and by the European Commission (DG Connect) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Image via Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis Library

Greek authorities are pretending independent journalists don’t exist

Greek authorities are pretending independent journalists don’t exist

Lack of transparency from government poses challenges for journalistic reporting. Among the many challenges faced by independent journalists in Greece, the failure — or, at times, refusal — of authorities to provide information is arguably one of the most disquieting.

By The Manifold

Despite some progress in the last decade or so with respect to the online publication of state contracts and various administrative documents, many decision processes that should be transparent are obfuscated by lack of access to the relevant paper trail, or by the administration’s failure to offer a reasoning for them.

To cite but a few examples, in the context of stories we have been researching in recent months, our investigative team has addressed requests for information to various authorities, including: the Ministry of Energy, regarding measures to address Greece’s rising energy prices and specifically the results of the Minister’s meetings with private energy producers, as well as apparent moves to delay permits for renewable energy storage technologies; the Ministry of Health, regarding wording in recent legislation that appeared to promote a pseudo-scientific approach to prenatal care; the Office of the Prime Minister, regarding an announcement by the PM, in March 2021, that a special assistant ombudsman would be appointed to oversee police violence complaints; the Ministry of Citizen Protection, regarding legislation to modernize police training that was announced a year ago, but has not as yet been introduced; the police, regarding the progress of specific disciplinary proceedings against officers accused of unlawful violence; and the Greek Ombudsman, regarding their role as overseer of the police disciplinary process.

Out of these authorities, only the Greek Ombudsman answered our questions fully. The police took four months to process our request. After repeated reminders and phone calls to the spokesperson, we received a partial reply with no explanation as to why the rest of our questions went unanswered. Despite, again, sending repeated reminders and talking to responsible press officers, neither the ministries nor the prime minister’s office ever replied.

Lack of communication

Solomon, an independent online outlet that focuses mainly on migration management issues, has faced similar problems. “Every time we address the Ministry of Migration and Asylum with questions or ask for some data”, says Solomon’s director Iliana Papangeli, “they assure us they are ‘working on it’, but weeks later we have still not received any answer.”

At one point, Papangeli recalls, “after several unanswered requests, we wrote to them (that) we would finally publish a piece about their lack of accountability, and asked for a comment on this at least. We received an angry response claiming they had never received any questions from us, so we simply sent them the screenshots of all email exchanges. But this was the only time they replied within an hour or so.”

Reporters United, a network of reporters who publish investigative stories on Greek topics, but also do a lot of cross-border, collaborative work, has likewise been up against the Greek authorities’ refusal to engage with independent journalists. In a characteristic case, while researching a collaborative story with Investigate Europe on how the Greek government blocked an EU directive to promote gender equality in the labour market, they addressed questions to the government and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, which went unanswered for months. Only after publication did the government issue a statement denying the report.

According to Thodoris Chondrogiannos, a reporter with Reporters United, the government discriminates between media that support it and media that could expose “wrongdoing”, to which it denies information. “Ignoring them”, he says, “is intended to delegitimize their investigative journalism, by signaling that ‘they are not serious enough to talk to’.”

However, once a story becomes widely known, says Chondrogiannos, “the government is often forced to speak out publicly, in order to refute the report for which they refused to answer before publication, in an effort to satisfy their political audience and avoid looking weak.”

Transparency issues

Journalists with non-Greek media are hardly better off when seeking information in Greece. Ingeborg Eliassen, a journalist with Investigate Europe who covered migration for many years, says that she often found it difficult to “establish any meaningful communication with the state authorities in this field”, though she has at times been helped by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“There may have been an English-language website”, says Eliassen, “but no contact info for a press office. If there was a press office and a contact number, it did not necessarily answer calls. If it did, I would be told to send an e-mail, which was rarely answered. If answered, after repeated reminders, it was mainly to say they were not the right ministry to address. On one occasion, the switchboard gave me a phone number, but hung up when I asked whom it would lead to. No one picked up on the given number. On another occasion, a person I reached that worked on the issue, said he was not allowed to talk with journalists. He had no suggestion of whom I should speak with instead.”

Eliassen has found these experiences discouraging from a public interest and press freedom point of view. “I also find them remarkable”, she says, “from the point of view of perception: they make Greek authorities seem indifferent and unprofessional, regardless of whether that is true or not. In several of the stories I have worked on, I have had to do without perspectives from the Greek government that would have enriched the understanding of the issues.”

To be sure, Greece has the trappings of transparency that one is entitled to expect in a democracy. In fact, the obligation of the government, and public authorities more generally, to disclose public interest information is enshrined in the constitution and various laws. In practice, however, decision makers are often less than forthcoming with all but the most innocuous information.

Vouliwatch, a parliamentary watchdog that also provides journalistic coverage of the legislative process, has at one time or another been refused access to data on political parties’ misappropriation of parliamentary funding, on presents received by parliament members from private individuals, and most famously on the criteria behind the disbursement of public funds to the media for Covid-19 “stay-at-home” campaigns. Vouliwatch has had to go as far as taking legal action in order to obtain documents that should have been speedily made available.

“Decision-making transparency and access to information constitute two fundamental elements of a healthy, democratic system of governance”, says Stefanos Loukopoulos, director of Vouliwatch. “Unfortunately neither of them seem to be viewed as a priority by Greek governments, who systematically and stubbornly fail to meet their obligations set by existing legislation and the Greek Constitution. This essentially renders the exercise of public oversight by journalists and civil society organizations a quasi-Herculean task, which more often than not discourages the pursuit of otherwise important investigations at the expense of transparency and political accountability.”

Transparency laws and constitutional protections are indispensable. What is also necessary, however, is for state authorities to forge a culture of accountability that includes engaging with independent journalists instead of pretending they don’t exist.


The Manifold is an investigative outfit with members in Athens, Nicosia and London. They run The Manifold Files.

This article is part of IPI’s reporting series “Media freedom in Europe in the shadow of Covid”, which comprises news and analysis from IPI’s network of correspondents throughout the EU. Articles do not necessarily reflect the views of IPI or MFRR. This reporting series is supported by funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and by the European Commission (DG Connect) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Expresso's newsroom. Photo credits: João Carlos Santos/Expresso. Library

Portugal’s Expresso newspaper still recovering from debilitating ransomware attack

Portugal’s Expresso newspaper still recovering from debilitating ransomware attack

‘It is a way of deliberately destroying the means of production of the media’. It has been a month since the Portuguese weekly newspaper Expresso became the victim of a ransomware attack, causing it to lose access to its website, its archives, and its Twitter account. How is the newspaper recovering from such a disruptive event?

On Sunday, January 2, 2022, the Portuguese newspaper Expresso became the victim of a ransomware attack by a hacker organization called Lapsus$.

Late in the evening, Lapsus$ succeeded in gaining access to the servers of Expresso, one of Portugal’s biggest newspapers.The hackers dismantled Expresso’s archives, and sent tweets from the newspaper’s verified Twitter account. The hackers also sent a phishing email to Expresso’s subscribers. Simultaneously, Lapsus$ hacked the Portuguese television broadcaster SIC and dismantled its system. Both SIC and Expresso are owned by Impresa, one of Portugal’s biggest media conglomerates.

It was an attack that no one saw coming. “We were surprised, so surprised”, Micael Pereira, a senior reporter at Expresso, told IPI. “We were shocked when we learned the website was taken down, and that our Twitter account did not work anymore. On the website, there was a blank page with a message from a group called Lapsus$. They were demanding ransom.”

It was the first time Lapsus$ launched an attack in Portugal. Earlier that month, Lapsus$ had hacked Brazil’s Health Ministry website, taking several systems down, including one with information about the national immunization program and another used to issue digital vaccination certificates.


The cyberattack has been a disruptive event for Expresso, Pereira told IPI. The newspaper still has a long recovery ahead of it. The website currently runs on a temporary system, using WordPress as a backend. The paper lost access to all its data. “We could not and still cannot access our digital archives, which not only contained content from Expresso, but also from other newspapers. SIC TV lost access to the digital archives of videos and relies on physical backups, such as hard drives and tapes.”

To design the newspaper over the past month, Expresso has been using an old system, which felt like “going back to the nineties”, according to Pereira. “Normally, we have software that allows us to write directly into the pages so that we can see how much space we have. But the past month we needed to write with a very specific amount of characters in our head. That text then needed to be transported to another system, a very complicated and timely process. Luckily, our team managed to go back to the more modern system recently.”

Recovering from the attack has been difficult, but Pereira is still proud of the work his team produces. “Luckily, we are a weekly paper. If it had been a daily paper, it would have been much crazier and much more difficult to get everything done in time.”

New perspective

The cyber attack has fundamentally changed the newspaper’s approach to online security, Pereira said. “Not only is our IT department making important changes to our backend for better protection, but the attack has also educated our team as a whole. Before the attack, we of course constantly received repeated messages from our IT department, encouraging us to change our passwords, to not click that suspicious phishing link. But only now do we fully understand the importance of this.”

Since the attack, Pereira – a member of ICIJ, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists – has received numerous questions about security from his colleagues. “As a journalist, I have covered many stories on leaks, for example on the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers. Now my colleagues have asked me for advice on their password manager, their apps, and antivirus systems. Even their home computers are important, as our personal computers have access to the company’s accounts. There is a lot that needs to be changed.”

In addition, Pereira believes awareness needs to be built by giving security training to the whole organization. “Not only to the journalists, but also to people in administrative departments and commercial departments, for example.”

Criminal investigation ongoing

Besides the newspaper’s continuing recovery, there is currently a criminal investigation ongoing into who was behind the attack, and what precisely happened. “This is very necessary, since we do not know if Lapsus$ stole any information from our servers”, Pereira said. “Especially in regards to our sources, this is important to find out.”

There are also still many questions about Lapsus$’s motivation. “The puzzling aspect is that although there was this initial ransomware attack, there was no follow-up”, Pereira said. “In the end, Lapsus$ stopped asking for money and we did not pay them anything. This makes their motivation somewhat of a mystery for me, as Lapsus$ also does not seem to have an ideological approach.”

Despite these unsolved questions, Pereira calls the event a “clear attack against press freedom”. He added: “It was hard, we were not able to do live interviews through Skype or Zoom because they were taken out by the attackers. All the images, all the footage, there was nothing we could use. It was, and is, terrible to recover from that night. It is a way of deliberately destroying the means of production of the media, destroying the capability of a newspaper.”

This article by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Members of the Spanish National Police check travelers upon arrival to Alicante, Spain, 22 October 2021. EPA-EFE/MORELL Library

Spain: Press freedom in 2021: Towards the end of…

Spain: Press freedom in 2021: Towards the end of the ‘gag law’?

Public Safey Law, online harassment remained key challenges for journalists in Spain last year

Plataforma por la Libertad de Información (PLI)

In a guest article for IPI, the Spanish free expression organization Plataforma por la Libertad de Información (Platform for Freedom of Information, PLI) summarizes key trends in press freedom in Spain in 2021. At the top of the list: the country’s ‘gag law’ continues to be applied against journalists, even as lawmakers mull a partial repeal of the widely criticized measure.

In a year that witnessed a record number of fines under the controversial Law on the Protection of Public Safety (known as the “gag law” due its negative impact on free expression), the Spanish Parliament finally took steps to approve a fundamental reform of the law. It is hoped that in the first half of 2022 the provisions most detrimental to press freedom and the right to protest will be repealed.

PLI has reacted cautiously to the agreement on this partial repeal out of fear that some of the most dangerous clauses with respect to freedom of the press and free expression may nevertheless be maintained.

The Law on the Protection of Public Safety has been criticized since its approval in 2015 by PLI and by international groups such as IPI as well as by organizations such as the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and the U.N. Human Rights Committee for its generic provisions that allow for the law to be arbitrarily applied by the police. It has since been used in Spain against activists and journalists, especially those covering protests and demonstrations.

According to the most recent available statistics, fines for disobeying or resisting authority or failing to identify oneself (Article 36.03 of the law) grew 20-fold between 2019 and 2020, from 12,645 to 243,001. This article is among those most frequently applied against journalists (especially photojournalists), and has a clear negative impact on press freedom, as PLI has reported.

On the other hand, there were only 50 sanctions in 2020 (the most recent year for which figures are available) for the “unauthorized use of images of police in the exercise of their function” (Article 36.23) – though this nevertheless represented a 30 percent increase compared to 2019. In December 2020, the Spanish Constitutional Court found this article to be unconstitutional and eliminated it. However, this nullification has not led to greater freedom for journalists during the past year, who continue to be fined under Article 36.03. In fact, we started 2022 with the case of Catalan photojournalist Mireia Comas, who was fined for refusing to delete photographs after she was ordered to do so by a police officer.

Another of the law’s provisions applied against journalists is Article 37.04 on displaying lack of respect to the police. There were 14,782 fines under this provision in 2020 amounting to a total of 2,384,693 euros.

Last year, once again, it was photojournalists and journalists who cover protests that suffered the biggest blows. Blows in the literal sense, like the police violence that Guillermo Martínez reported experiencing (he was later investigated for providing false testimony, despite presenting a medical report and video evidence supporting his account), and blows in the form of fines. The chilling effect from these types of measures limits the ability of journalists to do their jobs freely.

One of the most prominent cases is that of El País photojournalist Albert García, who at one point faced a prison sentence. Later, prosecutors withdrew that demand but maintained a fine for resisting authority. In November, we got the news that García had finally been acquitted.

Safety of Spanish journalists

In April 2021, two Spanish journalists lost their lives while doing their job: David Beriain and Roberto Fraile were murdered in Burkina Faso. Spanish foreign correspondents also faced difficulties reporting last year from Cuba and Gaza.

Inside Spain, the blot of online harassment and attacks on female journalists on social media continues to be one of the biggest concerns for journalists, women, and organizations that defend freedom of expression. Ana Pastor,  Ángels Barceló and Anna Bosch are just three name on a list that grows year after year. María Tikas is another journalist who was forced to live this terrible experience last year.

But journalists weren’t much safer inside the newsroom: Alicia Gutiérrez and news site Infolibre were charged with the revelation of secrets.

Elsewhere, the media outlets El Confidencial and Cuarto Poder reported that the Spanish electricity company Iberdrola withdrew advertising from the newspapers after they published information about it.

PLI also gave its support to Crónica Global in a case of the right to be forgotten and to various independent media that suffered cyberattacks that left them offline for several days.

Freedom of expression

Regarding freedom of expression and the persecution of artistic expression, a woman was fined for participating in a 2013 procession that featured a plastic vagina.

Another prominent case was that of singer Pablo Hasel, who remains in prison after being sentenced to nine months on charges of glorifying terrorism and insulting the crown and state institutions for his song lyrics and messages on Twitter in which he attacks the monarchy and the police.

He wasn’t the only singer who faced censorship. The municipality of Toledo yielded to the pressure of the far-right party Vox and removed a concert poster of the singer Zahara dressed as the Virgin Mary. The artist Pamela Palenciano faced another year of criticism, insults, and threats for her theatre monologue “It’s not only the blows that hurt” (No solo duelen los golpes).

There was also a serious case of censorship in which a judge in Castellón ordered the removal from schools of books with homosexual content.

Finally, a joke in poor taste led to well-known comedian David Suárez facing court for an alleged hate crime.

Positive news

In positive news, the family of journalist José Couso, killed in Baghdad in 2003, won a court victory and will finally receive compensation.

It’s also worth mentioning the consolidation of fact-checking media in Spain, which play an essential role in the fight against disinformation. This includes both dedicated ones (such as or Newtral) as well as those initiated by existing media themselves such as “EFE Verifica” or “Verifica RTVE”.

This article was first published by the IPI as part of Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

Petr Fiala and the centre-right SPOLU alliance won the Czech general election. Photo: Zbyněk Pecák/FORUM 24 Library

Despite election defeat, Babiš’s influence over the media still…

Despite election defeat, Babiš’s influence over the media still matters (FORUM 24)

After Czech election result, political influence over the media remains a major problem

Johana Hovorková, editor-in-chief, FORUM 24

This piece is published in collaboration with FORUM 24 as part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe. Read more

On October 8 and 9, the Czech Republic held elections to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower chamber of parliament. A coalition of the so-called traditional parties named SPOLU (United) clinched a narrow victory over the ANO movement of now former prime minister Andrej Babiš – but despite their victory effectively ousting the oligarch, the political contest was not and is not fair. Candidates face unequal conditions and this will continue to be the case in the municipal and presidential elections ahead.

The former prime minister Babiš, through his trust funds, owns media companies which control a third of the Czech market. His Agrofert corporation employs tens of thousands of people and places a considerable number of ads in the media it does not own. Thus, it is hardly to be expected that the media will dare to be critical of him.

The Czech Republic does have the Office for the Supervision of Political Parties and Political Movements, whose task is to monitor compliance with the 90 million CZK spending limit for campaigns. Unfortunately and despite repeated inquiries and warnings from journalists and democratic politicians, it does not consider the pieces in the media owned by Babiš´s publishing houses as campaign spending, even though they are often open PR or smear campaigns against his adversaries. In response to FORUM 24´s question, the office explained it considered them opinion pieces like any other.

In the same fashion, the public Czech TV and Czech Radio regularly invited—and they still do—editors from the Agrofert-owned Mafra publishing house to their shows to comment on politics and often on topics exclusively related to the prime minister, presenting them as “unbiased” commentators. This practice has not changed so far and the audience is not provided with information about whose interests these journalists represent.

You know how I am

The daily papers MF Dnes and Lidové noviny, also owned by Agrofert, published obsequious interviews with ministers from ANO before the elections. This opportunity was unavailable to any other representative of the opposition parties. Furthermore, Andrej Babiš owns a whole range of tabloid and lifestyle media.

These are excerpts from a tabloid weekly Rytmus života, which claims readership of 370 thousand per issue. One of the September issues boasted a double page piece about Babiš and his wife Monika with phrases like these:

“The kind face of Andre Babiš only changes when somebody fails to keep their word” and “What helps one act calmly is doing things in line with one´s conscience”.

This is the first question: “Why did you enter politics? What was your reason for it?” And this is the prime minister´s answer: “You know how I am. I am not indifferent to what is going around me and never have been…”

Babiš´s media also systematically suppressed scandals which involved the former prime minister. These included for example the poisoning of the Bečva river as a consequence of a chemical leak which had killed fish. An Investigation conducted by independent media points to the possibility the culprit was chemical producer DEZA from the Agrofert corporation. The papers owned by the corporation virtually failed to mention that.

These outlets also devoted little coverage to the facthat Andrej Babiš´s son returned to the Czech Republic, where he was able to give his testimony to the local police after many years. He claims to have been used in the so-called Čapí hnízdo scheme, for which his father is being prosecuted. The crux of the matter is a 50 million subsidy earmarked for small and midsized companies. Holding Agrofert got this money from the EU illegally and Babiš claimed that Čapí hnízdo is just a small company which has nothing to do with his imperium.

Given ANO´s dominant position over their junior cabinet partner ČSSD (Social Democrats), it was also impossible to ask members of the cabinet difficult questions. At the beginning of 2020, FORUM 24 was refused a permit to attend the press conferences held regularly at the Cabinet Office and this policy was not altered even during the covid 19 pandemic when they were held online and there were no grounds for limiting the number of attending journalists.

The inequality is further proven by FORUM 24´s findings based on the analysis of publicly available data from Datlab. The Mafra publishing house was awarded ad contracts worth 140 million CZK between 2018 and 2020. The list of advertisers includes ministries, regional government, but also state owned cultural institutions. None of the more critical media outlets received even a fraction of this amount despite the fact that their reach is not significantly lower and in some cases is even higher than that of the media selected for the campaigns, such as MF DNES and Lidové noviny papers.

The Czech media environment is severely skewed. Given the range of Andre Babiš´s business interests, virtually no industry or field remains unaffected. From food production, through urea production, underwear retail, running fertility treatment clinics to media. No other Czech citizen, let alone a politician, can compete with him in this. No other political party has unlimited resources for its campaign and no other politician employs journalists.

Exit strategy

The October elections have demonstrated that not even Andrej Babiš´s hegemony is all-powerful. The democratic parties successfully formed two coalition blocs to form a government. There will certainly be many things one can criticize this cabinet for, but the game will be played on a democratic playing field, something which was almost lost in previous years.

One of the things that helped the representatives of independent media and civil society in the previous term was international pressure. Two significant declarations of the EU Parliament were ratified, the EU Parliament conducted a fact-finding mission to the Czech Republic and international journalist institutions also expressed their concern over, among other things, the restrictions of cabinet press conference admissions. That is very important, because otherwise, there tends to be a widespread feeling that outside Poland and Hungary, no serious challenges to press freedom exist in the EU. But they do in Czechia.

Soon Czechs will be voting for a new president, who does not have the deciding power, but his or her role is important nonetheless since he or she can push the limits of the Constitution as demonstrated by Miloš Zeman. He refused to to appoint a minister on the proposal of the Prime Minister due to differing views although it is his duty.

Andrej Babiš has already started preparing for the election. Regardless of who will face him in the popular election, we know that just as in the parliamentary elections, the playing field will not be level. Babiš´s candidacy will be openly supported by a third of the media (the ones he owns) and at least another third will give him a lot of uncritical coverage because of Agrofert´s ads (this third includes for-profit TV Nova and TV Prima).

Is it possible to say the election is fair under such conditions? Will citizens be able to decide based on all the information which could and should be available to them? Hardly. It is necessary to keep drawing attention to this situation both in the Czech Republic itself and abroad.

This piece is part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe in collaboration with leading independent media in the region. Read more.

This article was published as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.


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