How Czech media reported about the largest protest since 1989

Thousands of demonstrators gather to protest against Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis and new minister of justice, in the one of the biggest political demonstration against the government since the fall of communism in 1989. [Filip Singer/EPA/EFE]

Europeans were stunned by the magnitude of protests in Prague on Sunday (23 June): reportedly some 250,000 people demanded that Prime Minister Andrej Babiš step down over allegations of corruption. But what was even more stunning is the way the Czech media reported about them.

Public Czech TV gave space in its broadcasting to participants, organisers and protesters, and explained the main reasons of protests and points in the petition, the floor was also given to politicians and to the prime minister himself.

But the second most read newspaper in the Czech Republic MF Dnes on its online platform (idnes.cz) mainly highlighted the 8 tons of trash the protesters left at the Letná plain, where the demonstration was held. They also gave attention to the work of ambulances, which had to take care of 70 people, and to the traffic jams.

To complete the picture, an interview with the prime minister was added and also one with the former president Václav Klaus, who commented that the people who went to the street were “frustrated, dissatisfied people who did not win the elections.” There was very limited space for the positions of the organisers.

In comparison, Czech media not related to Babiš released interviews, expertise by political scientists, as well as comments from politicians and the prime minister.

Media are not really comfortable in the Czech Republic. Czechs had already seen a video of President Miloš Zeman holding a Kalashnikov with the inscription “for journalists” at a press conference in 2017.

They have also seen a physical attack on a cameraman by a member of Zeman’s campaign staff after his reelection and the accusation against public Czech TV of “manipulating public opinion” and more.

But the head of state doesn’t have the exclusivity in anti-journalists campaigns.

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Czech journalists and media analysts are raising alarm over the “threat” to the country’s public media from mounting pressure on the press by populist politicians.

The murder of Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak in February last year provoked many protests and raised concerns about the media freedom in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These protests were supported by universities, teachers, artist and NGOs.

Jan Kuciak murder: How free is the European press?

The murder of the Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova in February provoked a wave of anger, resulting in Prime Minister Robert Fico’s resignation. However, half a year later, the state of press freedom in the country is still in limbo.

The Endowment Fund for Independent Journalism (an NGO) described the situation in the following terms:

“The development of the global crisis of the media and the concentration of the ownership of media titles in the hands of people with a great economic and political influence have weakened independent and quality journalism in the Czech Republic“.

Media ownership by oligarchs is a serious problem. One of the oligarchs is the Czech prime minister himself, as the second richest person in the country. According to Reporters Without Borders, Andrej Babiš owns the two most influential daily newspapers.

The massive drain of high-quality journalists from the traditional titles as Lidové noviny and MF Dnes, after their sale in 2014 to Babiš, was one of the indicators of the media crisis.

The current owner of the two papers is the Agrofert group. The company was founded by Babiš and owned by him until 2017, when he transferred ownership to trust funds controlled by his wife and lawyers, mostly to avoid accusations of conflict of interest in having benefited from EU funds.

Billionaire Czech PM faces more legal trouble over use of EU funds

Billionaire Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš faced renewed pressure over his business dealings on Saturday (1 December) after an EU legal document said he has a conflict of interest due to links to agribusiness companies that received European funds.

Agrofert group owns print and online media, television and radio broadcasting. It covers not only Czech, but also Slovak Republic. In its portfolio could be found the second most read daily newspaper MF Dnes (after tabloid Blesk) and the sixth most read Lidové noviny.

Babiš himself said, that he does not control the trust funds and has no power there.

The “independence” of the prime minister’s newspapers can be illustrated by the way  idnes.cz reported about the largest demonstration since the fall of Communism, that was held on Sunday.

Czechs demand Babis quit in largest protest since communism

Huge crowds flooded central Prague on Sunday (23 June) demanding Prime Minister Andrej Babiš step down over allegations of graft in a protest that organisers and local media claim drew around 250,000 people, making it the largest since the fall of communism in 1989.

The most read Czech newspaper – a tabloid called Blesk – is partly owned by the fifth richest Czech, Daniel Křetínský.

This paper is read every day by almost one million people, which is 10% of the whole population of the Czech Republic. In 2018 Křetínský turned his sights on the French media market and bought several publications, including Elle and Marianne, and this year bought stake in Le Monde.

On the list is also the 10th richest Czech, Zdeněk Bakala, who is a player in the coal mining business. He owns the media company Economia, which publishes Hospodářské noviny and Respekt. Penta investments, a company owned by the eighth richest person in the country,  Marek Dospiva, controls the Deník daily.

The Czech Republic ranks 40th according to the World Press freedom index. Even with this poor ranking, it’s still better than Poland and Hungary and is behind Slovakia on 35th place.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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