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After rough decade, Czech Republic sees huge improvement in media freedom

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Prague, Czech Republic – The Czech Republic drastically moved up in the annual ranking published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which ranked the country 9th in the EU and 20th globally.

Published every year on World Press Freedom Day, the WPF index measures the degree of freedom of news organisations and journalists around the world, as well as the policies introduced by public authorities to safeguard such liberties. The score assigned to the Czech Republic represents a radical improvement, with the country gaining twenty positions globally in one year.

“Liquidating” journalists

Ranked 13th in the world in 2014, the Czech Republic experienced a steady decline in media freedom, dropping to the 40th position in 2021. The downturn coincided with the acquisition of media conglomerates Mafra and Londa by Agrofert, owned by former Minister of Finance and Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, as well as Miloš Zeman’s rise to the Czech presidency in 2013.

Known for frequent attacks against journalists and news agencies, President Zeman has played a crucial role in the deteriorating Czech media environment over the past few years. While inflammatory exchanges between him and reporters are numerous, a notable example is the meeting with Putin in 2017, when he stated that there were too many journalists and they needed to be “liquidated”.

Later that year, he held a rifle with an inscription dedicated to journalists at a news conference. In 2018, he joked about organising a special event for the media at the Saudi embassy, alluding to what tragically happened to Jamal Khashoggi that same year.

But beyond these headline-grabbing exchanges, the Czech president’s nefarious influence runs deeper, and involves his refusal to reply to questions from journalists known to have been critical of his mandate, hence undermining all at once the free access to information, the public’s trust in media organisations, and journalists’ ability to do their job.

A billionaire and his media empire

The situation further deteriorated with Babiš’ legislative election win in 2017 and Zeman’s re-election the following year.

One of the richest men in the Czech Republic who entered politics in the early 2010’s, Babiš effectively consolidated his control over the media.

Agrofert subsidiary Mafra now owns some of the most popular newspapers and most-read magazines in the country, including MF DNES, Lidové noviny, Metro and TÉMA, while Londa holds prominent radio stations such as Rádio Impuls and Rádio Rock Zone.

This has led domestic and international observers to accuse Babis of excessive concentration of power, with his media outlets broadcasting mostly favourable coverage of him, and of widespread reports of conflict of interest between his business activities and political office.

Other worrying trends are at work. The latest annual report by Amnesty International has denounced an increasing politicisation of the Czech Television Councill. Last spring, the European Broadcasting Union and Reporters Without Borders highlighted that the elections of the governing body of Czech Television have in recent years been constantly subverted with the nomination of individuals linked to Babiš’ political party ANO.

An optimistic outlook

The International Press Institute (IPI) recently published a report focused on the “media capture” perpetrated by Babiš during his years in power, while stressing the importance of free and plural press in a democratic country member of the EU. The report also put forward a string of measures that the new government led by Prime Minister Petr Fiala may implement to protect media freedom in the Czech Republic.

As a result of these factors, the country was rated 34th in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index and retained the 40th position from 2019 to 2021, only to finally be placed 20th in 2022. Reporters Without Borders has explained this surge as the result of a substantial growth of independent media outlets (HlídacíPes and Deník N, among others), as well as increased trust towards established public media, namely Czech Television and Czech Radio, despite being subject to increasing political pressure.

RSF has also reported that countries such as the Czech Republic have “loosened their grip on the press following changes in government”. The IPI report seems to confirm this argument: after the election loss in October 2021, Babiš appears to have lost direct influence over public media, while other oligarchs that own media outlets now have less reason to accommodate him.

It is however too early to assess the new Czech government’s impact on the media sector, also bearing in mind that the Czech Republic’s drastic improvement in the WPF Index may partly be due to the sharp decline experienced by other countries, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, or Austria.

Notwithstanding these factors, the new Czech government is planning to change some regulations on public media with the declared aim of bolstering their independence and provide a wider diversity of views. On World Press Freedom Day, Prime Minister Fiala highlighted the critical role played by a free and independent press in a functioning democracy, a welcome change of rhetoric from the Zeman-Babiš years that bodes well for the future.

By Federico Alistair D’Alessio

Born and raised in Italy, Federico holds a BSc in International Relations and Diplomacy from the University of Derby, and an MSc in International Security and Risk from the University of Southampton, UK. He has also worked and volunteered in various countries, including Italy, the UK, Turkey, and the Czech Republic, and was previously a research assistant at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.

Headed by Kafkadesk's chief-editor Jules Eisenchteter, our Prague office gathers over half a dozen reporters, editors and contributors, as well as our social media team. It covers everything Czech and Slovak-related, and oversees operations from our other Central European desks in Krakow and Budapest.