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.

Czech Republic Library

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.