Czech Republic: a media tycoon bolsters his empire

The billionaire Andrej Babiš dominates large sections of the Czech media and is also politically active. His opponents call him "the Czech Berlusoni". But former editors of media outlets that Babiš has taken over in recent years are gathering at alternative websites and creating an alternative public sphere.

Deputy prime minister and media entrepreneur Andrej Babiš (© picture-alliance/dpa)
Deputy prime minister and media entrepreneur Andrej Babiš (© picture-alliance/dpa)
2013 and 2014 were explosive years in the Czech media: in the wake of the newspaper crisis several previously dominant German publishers (Rheinische Post, Axel Springer) left the Czech market. While neither of these publishers had ever exerted any political influence over newspaper content, when they sold the papers they made mistakes that were to have indirect repercussions for press freedom.

The Rheinische Post, for example, simply sold Mafra, the publisher of the two opinion-shaping newspapers Mladá fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny and of the frequently visited Internet service www.idnes.cz, to the highest bidder: the boss of the mixed concern Agrofert a.s., Andrej Babiš. Billionaire Babiš is also politically active and his protest movement Ano was the second-strongest contender in the 2013 parliamentary elections and has a clear lead in all the polls for the upcoming legislative elections in 2017.

Babiš is already deputy prime minister and finance minister, and has good chances of becoming prime minister. Having his own media outlets gives him an advantage here. He already owns Radio Impuls, the most popular Czech radio station, three Czech music TV stations and the Slovakian daily Hospodárske noviny. Rumour has it that he is seeking to acquire a national television channel with high audience figures.

His acquisition of Mafra did not go well. When Lidové noviny ignored a press conference staged by Babiš, he called up the editors indignantly and said: "The gentlemen obviously don't know who I am." For many distinguished journalists that was sufficient reason to resign. Several of the "deserters" founded their own web portal Echo24.cz, a major opinion-shaper. Babiš-opponents, who call him the "Czech Berlusconi”, say he aims to ensure that as little as possible is reported about him. In particular he wants to avoid reports about how he acquired his wealth and about allegations that he worked for the Stasi before 1989.

Following the withdrawal of all the German publishers, the remaining publishers of dailies are all Czech.
There were also complaints of political pressure being exerted on the public television station Česká televize in 2013/2014. A number of high-ranking journalists who staged a public rebellion were subsequently fired. The two top moderators Daniela Drtinová and Martin Veselovský then decided to found their own Internet television station DVtv, which has high audience figures and broadcasts under the umbrella of the newspaper publisher Economia a.s.

In the Czech Republic there are several political bloggers who tend to congregate at the websites of the various newspapers or at web portal Aktuálne.cz.

The price of newspapers and magazines may be about to drop in the Czech Republic. The Chamber of Deputies in Prague passed a bill in December to reduce VAT on print media from its current 15 percent to 10 percent. The bill must now be approved by the Senate.

Press Freedom Rating:
Reporters Without Borders: 23rd place (2017)
Freedom House: 28th place – status: free (2016)

Updated: May 2017
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