The Czech media landscape – heavily hit by the loss of advertising revenue due to the pandemic – has changed drastically in the last couple of months. Since February, some television channels swapped hands, others re-branded, and a leaked e-mail sparked fears of political interference in public broadcasting.
In the wake of the pandemic, media organizations throughout the world have experienced a decrease of advertising revenue. This has fed onto the already long-observed trend of the crisis of journalism.
Oligarchization of the media
Robert Břešťan, the editor-in-chief of HlídacíPes, an online investigative media outlet, first explains how the media scene evolved in the past ten years. “The key moment was the year 2013 – the purchase of MAFRA [Czech media group that owns the most popular media in the country] by Andrej Babiš [the current Prime Minister],” he says.
In the 1990s, a number of media organizations in the region of Central and Eastern Europe were bought by Western investors, but as profits started decreasing, these Western investors began selling their assets to local businesspersons like Babiš.
Břešťan says that these new owners often acquire media in order to exert influence rather than to make profit, adding that “this so-called oligarchization of media is definitely no good news for media freedom in the country.”
He points to the recent acquisition of TV Nova, the second most watched Czech television channel, from the American company Central Media Enterprises (CME) by the PPF investment group.
PPF is controlled by the richest man in the Czech Republic Petr Kellner. In February, CME shareholders approved the sale, sparking fears among some, including the American senator Marco Rubio, that the acquisition could be used to strengthen not only Kellner’s, but also Chinese influence in the country due to Kellner’s business activities in China.
According to Břešťan, although media freedom in the Czech Republic has been deteriorating, the media environment has also become more diverse – with small independent media outlets like “Reportér, Echo, Svobodné Forum, Neovlivní, and HlidaciPes” emerging.
But the crisis has been putting a strain on the budgets of the smaller media outlets, among others, Reportér began a crowdfunding campaign to make up for the loss of profit.
“In contrast, larger media organizations whose owners see them as a tool to exert influence can afford to take losses,” says Břešťan.
Břešťan is worried that the crisis could eventually also hit small online media outlets like HlídacíPes because “our business model relies mostly on donations from those that view journalism as a public good, but when people and companies struggle to make ends meet – donations could stop coming.”
Meanwhile, as some struggle for survival due to the effects of the pandemic, the third-most-watched television station, TV Prima, heralded the launch of its new news format – CNN Prima News.
On May 3, after previously acquiring the license from the American news network, the television began providing non-stop news coverage, competing with the similar format of the public broadcaster channel CT24.
Czech Public Broadcasting under Fire?
In other news, a recent scandal mired the election into the Czech Television Council, a body elected by the Parliament that oversees public broadcasting, when a leaked email revealed a possibility of political interference by the governing ANO party.
During the vote in March, the deputies were supposed to replace six out of fifteen candidates, but were able to agree only on three, so the vote had to be split into two rounds. The second round took place on May 27 and replaced the final three members.
The newly elected Council represents a shift in the balance of power from those largely uncritical of the current leadership of the Czech television, the largest and most popular television in the country, to those that have previously voiced criticism about the Czech Television’s current director Petr Dvořák.
The controversy began when the Czech media outlet Info.cz released an email sent by ANO member Stanislav Berkovec, the head of the Electoral Committee of the Parliament, to other members of the governing party. Although the law stipulates that the members of the Council should not be affiliated with any political party, Berkovec categorized candidates based on their relationship to the governing ANO party and the current director.
Referring to the email, Dvořák tweeted on May 27 that “The result of the vote is nothing surprising. Some members of the Parliament have been comfortable with the growing pressure on the independence of Czech Television, which could be reflected also in the replacement of the Council members.”
One of the candidates identified by Berkovec as someone who “actively works against the ANO party” was Michal Klima, the Chairman of the Foundation for Holocaust Victims and the head of the Czech National Committee of the International Press Institute.
“I have thirty years of experience working in media, including leadership roles in publishing houses, but when I saw the summary of my resume in this letter – this wasn’t me; this was someone else,” said Klima in a Skype call, adding that categorizing candidates along party lines as it was done in the letter was “against the law.”
Klima explains that the powers of the Council are quite limited. Its main functions are to elect or dismiss the director of the television and to approve the yearly reports about the programming and economic activity of the public broadcasting service.
He thinks that the financing of the television could become one of the main topics on the agenda of the newly elected Council, pointing to the fact that the license fees for public broadcasting have not changed since 2008. This raises questions about the financial stability of the television and the possible need to either cut costs or increase the license fees.
In a Twitter post, following the second round of the vote for the Council of the Czech Television, the Milion Chvilek pro Demokracii [Million moments for democracy], the association which in June 2019 organized the largest protest since the fall of communism, attended by more than 250,000 people, said “Farewell to the independence of the Council of the Czech Television.”
That said, whether the Council will be used as a tool to exert influence on the Television is yet to be seen. Such development could take a form of replacing the current director, which could then scrap the programming voicing criticism against the government and serves as a watchdog on the abuse of political power in the country. If that happens, Milion Chvilek has already stated on their website that this would represent a red line.
In that case, the current pandemic slumber might well be just the calm before the storm as protestors could again take to the streets to demand the independence of the Czech public broadcasting service.
This article is published as part of a project to promote independent digital media in Central and Eastern Europe funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and coordinated by Notes from Poland.
By Matej Voda
Born in Prague, Matej Voda studied at Charles University and University College London. He currently pursues his graduate studies at Central European University in Budapest and Vienna. Previously, he worked and interned at EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in Berlin, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Prague-Based Association for International Affairs, and the Prague office of Euractiv. He enjoys cheese, theatre and Russian literature. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here! You can also find him on Twitter.