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Chance for Czech Presidency of EU to champion media…

Chance for Czech Presidency of EU to champion media freedom

Seventeen media freedom and freedom of expression organisations from across Europe wrote to Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala to urge his government to use it upcoming presidency of the European Union to help drive forward vital EU initiatives to protect media freedom across the bloc, including the European Media Freedom Act (EFMA).

Sent on the eve of Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the open letter welcomes the Czech administration’s ongoing commitment to the freedom of the media and stresses the opportunity to advance the debate around the EMFA as a vital tool for pushing back against the threat posed to independent journalism by media capture.

Read the full letter below and a joint statement by the same groups on the need for a strong and ambitious EFMA

June 30, 2022

Petr Fiala, Prime Minister, Czech Republic

CC: Mikuláš Bek, Minister of Europe

CC: Charles Michel, President of the European Council

CC: Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission

Dear Prime Minister Fiala,

On behalf of seventeen journalists, media freedom, and human rights groups we take the opportunity of the upcoming Czech Republic’s presidency of the Council of the European Union to welcome your government’s commitment to freedom of the media and determination to advance the EU’s ability to address threats to journalism and media freedom.

 

The current Commission has prioritized media freedom as part of its Democracy Action Plan and has taken important initiatives in advancing the safety of journalists through the recommendations issued in September 2021, and in addressing the balance of power on the internet to preserve fundamental human rights and combat disinformation in the Digital Services Act.

 

In April the much-needed anti-Slapps Directive was launched and, left undiluted in its current form, can make a very significant impact on protecting journalists from being targeted by vexatious lawsuits designed to stifle public debate and prevent accountability.

 

And under your presidency the European Commission is due to publish the European Media Freedom Act providing a crucial opportunity to combat the threats posed to European democracy by the capture of media by political parties and governments that has become increasingly prevalent in parts of the European Union.

 

Media Capture as conducted by political forces can be broadly understood as the abuse of government powers to create a pliant media acting in the interests of the government. It can be divided into four key areas,

  • the misuse and abuse of government funds – advertising, public subsidies or other public contracts – to boost media support for government and punish independent media
  • the taking over of media regulators with politically aligned supporters that can abuse their authority to rule on media licensing and mergers in favour of pro-government media
  • the manipulation of media ownership to create a bubble of government propaganda outfits – often dependent on government largess – and sidelining independent media to the edges of public debate
  • the control of public media, often converted into flagrant propaganda arms.

 

The EMFA should address all of these areas by introducing Europe wide rules on

  • Improving transparency of media ownership and funding and all financial relations between media and the government
  • Ending the abuse of government funds to finance media allies and creating a hostile economic environment to independent media
  • Improving the independence of media regulators, and
  • Protecting public media from political interference

The Czech Presidency has an opportunity to advance the debate around the EMFA as it understands well the threat posed by media capture and the necessity for EU action.

 

In particular you have witnessed how public advertising and public contracts were abused by the previous Czech government to fund media close to and owned by the former Prime Minister. You have also witnessed how the appointments process for the governing bodies of the Czech TV were politicised by the previous government in an attempt to take control of the public broadcaster. And you have witnessed how media pluralism can suffer when mainstream media are taken over by oligarchs dependent on close relations with the government to protect their broader business interests.

 

You were elected to power on the promise of promoting media freedom, independence and pluralism and introducing reforms to end the ability of governments to abuse state funds to influence media coverage. We ask you to help replicate these actions with a strong endorsement of the European Media Freedom Act.

 

Kind regards,

International Press Institute (IPI)

Association of European Journalists (AEJ Belgium)

Baltic Centre for Media Excellence (BCME)

Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties)

The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ)

Cultural Broadcasting Archive (cba), Vienna

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Finnish Foundation for Media and Development

Free Press Unlimited

Global Forum for Media Development

IFEX

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

Ossigeno.info

Public Media Alliance (PMA)

South East Europe  Media Organisation (SEEMO)

Society of Journalists, Warsaw

This statement was coordinated by 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, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Ceska Televize Library

Czech Republic: MFRR pushes for reforms to strengthen independence…

Czech Republic: MFRR pushes for reforms to strengthen independence of public broadcaster

Representatives from the International Press Institute (IPI) and European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) travelled to Prague on Wednesday June 15 to meet with officials from the Ministry of Culture and push for the development of reforms which strengthen the independence of the country’s public broadcaster.

During the one-day visit, the delegation met with journalists and editors from independent media, representatives from the Endowment Fund for Independent Journalism (NFNZ), the director general of the Czech Television Petr Dvořák, and representatives from the Ministry of Culture under the new coalition government of Petr Fiala.

 

Discussions centred around the preparation of draft amendments aimed at creating additional safeguards to protect the institutional and editorial independence of Czech Television, which faced sustained pressure under the former government led by Andrej Babiš.

 

During the meeting with the Ministry, it was confirmed to the delegation that progress had been made in negotiations regarding the amendments and that the cabinet is due to discuss a re-worked package of reforms this week, June 20-24.

 

The new package contains only a handful of the amendments initially proposed by civil society groups including the NFNZ and IPI CZ and which were supported by the organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR). According to information provided to the delegation, the revised amendments will include:

 

  • Changing the law so that both chambers of parliament, rather than just the Chamber of Deputies, will be involved in appointments to the Czech Television Council. This more staggered system is intended to make it more difficult for a government to use a parliamentary majority to overly politicise the composition of the council;

 

  • Tightening the rules for who can nominate candidates for the CT Council. Under the proposed amendment, only established institutions with 10 years of experience in the fields such as media, culture or human rights would be permitted to nominate candidates;

 

  • Removing the ability of parliament to reject the annual report of the public broadcaster, eliminating the ability of the parliament to twice reject the report and subsequently dismiss the entire CT Council;

 

  • Increasing the number of councillors on the CT Council from 15 to 18. Under the draft, the Senate would vote for six and the Chamber of Deputies will appoint the other 12. A qualified majority of 10 would be needed to appoint and dismiss the director general.

 

As part of the initial reform package developed by the Ministry of Culture, when the amendments entered into force the entire CT Council would have been dismissed and elections would have been held under the new appointment system. However, the Legislative Council of the Government raised concerns about the legality of the move and a compromise was required, causing significant delays while coalition parties negotiated an alternative.

 

Under the rewritten plans, the number of councillors will instead be increased by three. In another shift, the Chamber of Deputies would elect two thirds of the councillors rather than the original proposed 50:50 split between the Chamber and the Senate.

 

If approved by the cabinet in June, the draft amendment would then need approval from the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate before being signed into law.

 

“It is uplifting to finally see progress made on the preparation of a new draft. While this new package contains only a fraction of the initial proposals, if passed these amendments would still have a significant impact and create additional safeguards against future attempts to undermine the independence of Czech Television”, said IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen, who participated in the visit. “We urge the cabinet to swiftly approve this first package of reforms and send the package to parliament for a vote. It is vital that early momentum of improving the landscape for media freedom is not lost.

 

“However, this should be seen as a first step in a wider process of reform – one which must urgently include the provision of sustainable financing for Czech Television. The Czech public broadcaster has been, and remains, a standard bearer for other public service media in the region. Shoring up its financial stability and passing amendments which help future-proof the institution against political attacks would provide a much-needed example of resilience in central and eastern Europe. Our organisations will continue to closely follow the legislative process and push for additional needed improvements for media freedom in the coming months.”

 

During the meeting at the Ministry, the delegation was also informed that a working group is due to be established to discuss a second package of reforms to the Act on Czech Television and Czech Radio. This would include the proposal to legislate for automatic increases in the licence fee in line with inflation, as well as greater judicial oversight over dismissals of councillors and the creation of professional criteria for those seeking election to the CT Council. IPI strongly urged that this working group include independent national and international experts.

 

Coming in the wake of an announcement about forced cuts to budgets and staff numbers, a solution to the unsustainable financial situation at Czech Television is viewed by the delegation as essential in the coming months. In total, the broadcaster will be forced to cut 910 million crowns (€36.8 million) by 2024 and intends to axe its newest channel, ČT3. The license fee has not increased since 2008.

 

During the visit of the delegation to Prague, the delayed election for the CT Council was also held. After the governing coalition passed a motion for the vote to be made public, the opposition party boycotted the vote. Five new councillors were appointed, all of whom have suitable professional qualifications and expertise.

This mission was coordinated by 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, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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The main building of the Czech Television (Ceska televize; CT), a public television broadcaster Library

Czech Republic: Independence of public broadcasters must be insulated…

Czech Republic: Independence of public broadcasters must be insulated against future attacks

Partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) have published a statement urging the Czech Government to come good on its promises to strengthen the independence of public broadcasters and to seize the opportunity to put press freedom at the centre of its EU presidency programme.

Press freedom in the Czech Republic has undergone a welcome boost since the government of Prime Minister Petr Fiala came to power. The undersigned media freedom and journalists organisations today urge the new administration to use this momentum to push forward with amendments which will strengthen the institutional independence of Česká televize (Czech Television) and Český rozhlas (Czech Radio).

Under the previous government, Czech Television came under sustained pressure and saw politically-motivated attempts to unseat its director general. Since coming to power, the new administration has been developing draft amendments to the Act on Czech Television and Czech Radio with the aim of creating additional institutional safeguards. These plans have been developed with the welcome input of journalists’ groups and media associations, above all NFNZ, CZ IPI and Rekonstrukce statu.

While initial progress in developing the bill was swift, the process has since stalled as the Ministry of Culture navigates the complicated legal challenges of passing such a reform. The latest round of appointments to the broadcasters’ oversight bodies have also slowed progress. As the Czech Republic prepares to take over the presidency of the Council of the European Union in July 2022, we urge the government to refocus its attention and double its efforts to pass these amendments in the coming months.

The draft amendments contain six important elements. This first involves changing the law so that both chambers of parliament, rather than just the Chamber of Deputies, are involved in appointments to the broadcasters’ governing bodies. Currently, a government can use its parliamentary majority to decide the composition of the boards, allowing it to place political allies within management structures. A more staggered system would reduce the ability of an election winner to overly politicise the bodies and will result in more pluralistic councils.

Secondly, the draft amendments include plans to establish, for the first time, clear criteria for those who can be appointed to the governing councils. This will help ensure professionalism and integrity are the principal factors in the selection process, rather than political affiliation. Under the previous government, appointments to the TV council were clearly aimed at politicising the oversight bodies and eroding the broadcaster’s independence. The changes would mean only those with relevant experience and knowledge would meet the threshold for appointment.

A third element would tighten the rules for who can nominate candidates. Currently, any social organisation or association can put forward nominees, even those linked with political parties or with little knowledge of the media ecosystem. This has led to the appointment of unsuitable and unprofessional candidates, some of whom have recently displayed an openly hostile approach towards the ČT management. Under the proposed amendment, only established institutions with 10 years of experience in the fields such as media, culture or human rights would be permitted to nominate candidates.

A fourth element involves greater judicial oversight over dismissals of councillors. Currently, there is no legal recourse to challenge the firing of councillors by parliament. Under the proposed changes, the Supreme Administrative Court would be given powers to review the decisions by parliament, reducing the avenues for pressure by government on councillors. Finally, the legislation includes provisions for sustainable funding for the public broadcaster, with automatic increases in the licence fee in line with inflation, creating a strong economic foundation for the future.

If passed, our organisations believe these reforms would represent a major step forward in insulating the broadcaster from political interference and future-proofing it against attempts to gain control over its oversight bodies. While the transition from the current council to a new body brings short-term challenges – and must be carried out in line with democratic principles and the Czech Constitution – in the long term this new design will create a far stronger buffer between political power and public service media, improve accountability, and further increase trust in public broadcasting. Failure to pass these reforms in full would leave gaps in the broadcaster’s defences which can be abused by future governments.

Constructing these safeguards is urgent considering the state of public service broadcasting in the wider region. Governments in Hungary and Poland have distorted public service media into state audio-visual propaganda organs, while in Slovenia there have been fresh concerns over political appointments to the management of Radiotelevizija Slovenija. Contrastingly, the Czech public broadcaster has long been a bastion of independent journalism in Eastern and Central Europe. Creating even stronger ramparts for the broadcaster’s independence would provide a much-needed model for neighbouring countries to follow in years to come.

Ahead of the EU presidency, the Czech Republic has an opportunity to put press freedom at the centre of its programme. Passing this flagship legislation would provide a timely example in Europe of the resilience of media freedom. It would also add to the welcome list of improvements our organisations have observed since the new government took office, including the normalisation of communication with media, the re-admittance of independent journalists to government press conferences, guarantees to end the abuse of government advertising and rapid improvements for journalists’ access to public information. We look forward to seeing the further preparation of this law in the coming months and our organisations stand ready to support the development of this bill.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • Endowment Fund for Independent Journalism (NFNZ)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Public Media Alliance (PMA)

This statement was coordinated by 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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IPI Czechia Report Library

IPI publishes report on media capture in the Czech…

IPI publishes report on media capture in the Czech Republic

New government must help strengthen media independence and pluralism. The International Press Institute (IPI) today published a new report on media freedom and independence in the Czech Republic. The report focuses on the spread of media capture under the former government of Andrej Babiš and sets forth recommendations for the new government of Petr Fiala to reform and strengthen independence and pluralism in the media sector.

Babiš, one of the Czech Republic’s richest men and owner of the Agrofert conglomerate, served as finance minister from 2014 to 2017 and as prime minister from 2017 to 2021 after purchasing the publishing house Mafra and using it to launch his political career. Babiš left government in November 2021 with a record of undermining the public broadcaster, steering government advertising to his media, and generally using his media power to promote and defend his government’s record.

Media capture

As the report shows, media capture in the Czech Republic differs fundamentally from countries like Hungary. Rather than a state-led media takeover, the Czech Republic witnessed the acquisition of many of the country’s largest private media outlets by a handful of oligarchs for whom media could be used to promote their wider business interests. This development had serious consequences for media pluralism and the standards of journalism. Meanwhile, once in power, Babiš arguably sought to mirror certain media-capture strategies adopted in Hungary and Poland, while other oligarch-owned media limited their criticism of Babiš and his ANO party.

The report also examines how high-quality investigative journalism retreated from mainstream media to a community of small digital outfits that, despite their reduced resources, have been able to maintain a crucial check on power.

The report examines growing pressure on the public-service broadcaster Czech Television (CT) under the Babiš government. While the struggle for control of CT weakened its independence, the broadcaster ultimately held out against full capitulation, remaining a beacon of public-service journalism in the region. In this light, the report looks at key reform proposals to strengthen Czech public media’s defenses against future attempts to compromise its independence.

The report also details how government advertising funds were directed to benefit Mafra media owned by Babiš and recommends policy reform to end the abuse of government funds to reward positive media coverage.

Opportunity for reform

The new Czech government now has the opportunity to strengthen the media sector through a robust reform of the rules on public media and the use of public funds as well as through policies ensuring the support of the quality journalism sector. The report provides key recommendations toward this end.

In July 2022 the Czech government will take over the Presidency of the European Union where it has already announced that media freedom will be central to its agenda.

The report is authored by Michal Klíma, who was the chair of the IPI Czech National Committee until February 2022 when he accepted a position as the advisor to the Czech prime minister on media issues and on countering disinformation.

The report was also presented during the panel “Competing Models of Media Capture in Europe” at the Media Freedom Rapid Response Summit on March 24.

This report is published as part of IPI’s actions in 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.

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.

Ceska Televize Library

After Czech elections, new push for public media independence…

After Czech elections, new push for public media independence (HlídacíPes)

Vojtěch Berger, HlidaciPes.org

The nationalization of the Czech Television and the Czech Radio has not taken place yet. On the contrary, they are to receive a “vaccine” against political pressures, writes HlidaciPes.org.

Back in September, just before the parliamentary elections, then-Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš attacked Czech Television for allegedly “dividing society” during the pandemic. The far-right SPD movement spoke openly about its plan to nationalize both Czech Television and Czech Radio. However, after the elections, in which Babiš lost and the radical populists remained behind their own expectations, everything is (somewhat unexpectedly) different. After many years, there is a chance to cut the public media as much as possible from political influence.

MPs could get draft amendments to the acts on Czech Television and Czech Radio to be examined and scrutinized in the coming months. Senator David Smoljak is involved in their drafting, along with the Endowment for Independent Journalism and a non-profit organisation, Reconstruction of the State. The changes in the acts concern, in particular, how media councils, which in the Czech Republic serve as a “buffer” between political power and editorial independence of public-service media, are formed and elected.

“Firstly, they should strengthen the diversity of the Council, so that it is not elected by only one chamber of the Parliament, which has been the case so far, and thus it is not absolutely dependent on the current winner of the election. There is an emphasis on the competence of the councillors and on the reviewability of their decisions,” Smoljak lists the main objectives of the acts.

Smoljak spoke about the preparations for the amendments last year, but he assumed that the Parliament, in its then composition, would not approve such changes. The past year and a half showed the weaknesses of the current system of nominating and electing the members of the media councils. This is true for both the television and radio councils.

A significant number of the Czech Television Council members have been replaced in the last two years when, after last year’s election of six new members, another five out of a total of fifteen were to follow this year. The nominations of candidates, as well as the selection of the finalists, often noticeably correlated with the parliamentary voting alliance of the ruling ANO movement, the far-right SPD and the Communists.

This alliance often selected candidates without the necessary expertise, but with an openly hostile attitude towards, for example, the management of Czech Television. In the Television Council in particular, this led to the Council meetings becoming hours-long skirmishes between some of the councillors and the Director General, instead of the councillors addressing the control agenda that appertains to the Council members.

It was precisely because of the doubts about the competence of the candidates supported by the ANO government that this spring, the then-parliamentary opposition decided to block the election of four new members of the TV Council by obstructions, resulting in its being incomplete for several months.

Elections also interfered in the staffing of the media councils this year when some councillors themselves decided to run for Parliament. One of the councillors resigned because of this, while another councillor was removed. The act foresees that councillors are not to work for the benefit of any political party. However, the resignation/removal of two councillors has contributed to the vacancies in both of the councils, namely in a situation whereby the Parliament has been unable to elect new councils members due to the obstructions and the upcoming elections.

The aforementioned amendments to the Czech Television and Czech Radio acts therefore prefer to expressly ban councillors from running for political office. However, they bring about an even more fundamental change elsewhere: After twenty years, the acts change the very manner in which media councillors are recruited in the Czech Republic and who is allowed to nominate them and who elects them.

While today any social organization or association – even an absolutely marginal one or one that was founded briefly before the nomination – can send a candidate to the council, the amendment stipulates that the nominating organization would have to have at least a decade-long tradition. They would also have to have been active for a long time in one of an exhaustive list of fields, such as, in addition to the media, culture, trade unions, education, science and protection of human rights. According to the authors of the act, this is a safeguard to ensure that “only active entities, and not ‘shell companies’, nominate the candidates”.

The amendment also sets a minimum threshold of expertise for councillors themselves. They should have experience holding a senior position in public administration or a private company and be knowledgeable in fields such as economics, law or finance or management and, of course, the media.

“There was no political support for the German form of the act,” Senator Smoljak said on the examination and scrutiny of the amendment so far, referring to the way media councils are formed in Germany. What is common there is an enumeration of specific social organizations that are allowed to nominate candidates to the councils, for example churches or trade unions.

Another major change is the election of television and radio councillors, which is now entirely in the hands of the Chamber of Deputies. Under the new arrangements, half of the councillors would be chosen by the Chamber of Deputies and half by the Senate at each election. At the same time, the number of councillors would be reduced to 12 for the television council and to six for the radio council.

However, according to David Smoljak, this would also mean building both councils on a completely new basis. In other words: removing the existing councils, with their current members. “My view is, and not everyone agrees, that when this act comes into force, the existing council should end and a new one should be created because it is difficult to combine that,” Smoljak confirms.

But even if the media acts arrive to the Chamber of Deputies soon, it will probably take many months before the Chamber of Deputies discusses them. The aforementioned vacant positions on the Council of the Czech Television and one position on the Council of the Czech Radio will have to be filled much earlier. And even that could be a problem.

When the election committee of the Chamber of Deputies selected the 12 finalists – candidates for the Television Council – in the spring, some media experts failed to be selected, while open critics of the current management of the Czech Television got the green light. The then-opposition, which became the government majority after the October elections, resorted to the aforementioned obstructions and prevented the election.

The option now is for MPs to start the whole election once again. “Now the election committee has a new composition and the same applies to the whole Chamber of Deputies, so the process will have to be done again,” says Senator Smoljak. Petr Gazdík, the deputy chair of the STAN movement and a member of the election committee in the previous Chamber of Deputies, feels the same way: “In my opinion, nominations and selection should start from the beginning.”

However, representatives of the ANO movement, which led the election committee for the past eight years, disagree. “I don’t like it, but I can’t do anything about it, I have to respect it. I’m curious to see how the former ‘democratic opposition’ will behave now. Whether they outvote us by force and push through their 12 members in the committee,” said Martin Kolovratník, a deputy and member of the committee for ANO.

“In addition to the fact that it’s not all that fair, it also involves a risk that the same obstructions may occur which would replicate the previous obstructions. Looking at it this way, the council is actually unelectable forever,” said another ANO MP, Patrik Nacher, criticizing the announcement of new elections for the television council.

The amendments to the act on Czech Television and the act on Czech Radio, however, envisage other significant changes. Not only the decisions of the councillors themselves, but also their election or dismissal by the Parliament should be subject to judicial review. The review would be carried out by the Supreme Administrative Court.

In addition, the acts also address the issue of sustainable funding of Czech Television and Czech Radio. The Act on radio and television license fees proposes to insert a procedure for adjustment of fees so that they are automatically increased on a regular basis by the current inflation rate announced by the Czech National Bank for a specific calendar year.

The draft act is now undergoing final examination and Senator Smoljak claims that public service media “have priority”. Whether this will remain the case in light of all the gigantic problems awaiting the new government – from COVID-19 and the national debt to expensive energy – remains to be seen in the coming months.

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.

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IPI condemns exclusion of journalists during Babiš-Orbán press conference

IPI condemns exclusion of journalists during Babiš-Orbán press conference

Several Czech and foreign journalists blacklisted and denied entry to prime ministers’ joint press conference.

 

The IPI global network today joins its Czech National Committee and the Endowment Fund for Independent Journalism (NFNZ) in condemning the discriminatory exclusion of certain foreign and domestic journalists from a joint press conference held by the prime ministers of Hungary and the Czech Republic.

On Wednesday, September 29, journalists from various European and Czech media were denied admittance to an afternoon press briefing by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš in the Czech city of Ústí nad Labemof, which focused on defence, migration and the coronavirus pandemic.

Among those denied entry were Jean-Baptiste Chastand and Magdalena Sodomková from French daily Le Monde, Martin Nejezchleba from the German weekly Die Zeit, and journalists from the German regional public broadcaster MDR and the Czech news websites Seznam Zprávy and Investigace.cz. Other investigative and freelance journalists were also barred.

The press department of the office of the government said the decision was taken due to capacity constraints. However, images of a list of reporters who had applied to attend with some names highlighted in red were circulated on social media. Those barred applied for accreditation well in advance. According to a correspondent for Czech Radio, there was ample space in the event hall.

“IPI strongly opposes this unnecessary obstruction of free journalistic work and condemns the discriminatory policy of barring journalists from certain media from attending press conferences”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Worryingly, this is a tactic we see used all too often by the governments of both Orbán and Babiš, and across the Visegrad region, to side-line critical press and shield politicians and public officials from challenging questions.

“While independent and critical journalists in Hungary have been routinely denied access to publicly held information without explanation and denied accreditation for official events for years, similar incidents have recently been on the rise in the Czech Republic. We urge both prime ministers and their governments to respect press freedom by providing fair and equal access and allowing journalists to carry out their work free from arbitrary obstruction and restrictions.”

Last year, IPI and the partner organisation of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) sent an open letter to the government of the Czech Republic raising concerns about its side-lining of critical media during similar press conferences.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists from certain media outlets, including Forum 24, were repeatedly denied accreditation and barred from attending online government press conferences or questioning officials on their handling of the health crisis.

In May 2021, the head of the Office of the President of the Czech Republic, Vratislav Mynář, announced the office would stop providing information to several media outlets, including Respekt, Seznam Zprávy, Deník N, Czech Television (CT) staff working for 168 hours and other reporters from the public television.