The freedom of the press has been threatened in the Czech Republic, but the country can solve the situation on its own, lawmakers stated in a plenary debate on Thursday (1 June). EURACTIV.cz reports.
Until February this year, the then Czech Vice-Prime Minister Andrej Babiš was the owner of two influential dailies and other media. At the beginning of May, it turned out that he also influenced at least one journalist working for his own media, a disclosure that intensified a bizarre political crisis that was already under way in the country.
But this is more of a blunder of one politician than a systemic issue, several MEPs said in a debate which was held at the European Parliament’s plenary yesterday. It did not raise much attention, as only around 30 MEPs took part, almost half of them Czechs.
This situation does not constitute systemic threat to the democracy and rule of law in the Czech Republic, the Director for Media Policy at the European Commission’s DG Connect, Giuseppe Abbamonte, told MEPs in the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee (LIBE) who discussed the issue on Tuesday (30 May).
At the plenary, Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström who stressed that the executive only had limited competences in this area represented the Commission. “We are definitely aware of current challenges and we are closely following the situation,” she stated.
“It’s a campaign”
“We are entering the stage when media take part in a political game – that means they became advocates of their owner and try to make an impression that there is one player fighting for the good against a group of corrupt politicians,” the editor-in-chief of influential weekly Respekt, Erik Tabery, told the MEPs in LIBE when he commented on the situation of the Czech media market.
Babiš resigned at the end of May after allegations of tax fraud. Already before that, in February, he put a trust fund in charge of his agricultural and chemical holding Agrofert, together with the media he owned, including influential newspapers Mladá fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny.
This was to comply with a new conflict of interest law directed specifically at Babiš. According to the bill, members of the government cannot own media, and their business companies cannot take part in public procurement procedures and benefit from public subsidies.
At the plenary, some MEPs said the European Parliament should not be discussing the issue at all, arguing that the Czech government has dealt with the situation properly.
“The so-called ʻlex Babišʼ is one of the proofs that we are able to solve the situation in the Czech Republic on our own,” said Czech MEP Tomáš Zdechovský from Christian Democratic party KDU-ČSL (EPP) that is part of the governing coalition together with Social Democrats and the ANO movement (part of ALDE) led by Babiš.
MEP Martina Dlabajová from ANO said she believed that such debates in the European Parliament are harmful to the Czech Republic, putting the country into the group of problematic ‘illiberal’ member states such as Poland and Hungary.
“Democracy and rule of law is not threatened in the Czech Republic and I do not understand how this was able to get to the plenary’s agenda,” she told EURACTIV.cz, adding that this was rather a “political game”.
Babiš said on Tuesday (30 May) that the European Parliament debate would be just a “campaign” against him. “The Parliament should only give its opinion on a situation in a member state, if the government of the country deliberately breaches the rules,” he told the Czech Press Agency.
On the other hand, MEP Zdechovský thinks the results of the debate were “not that bad”. “I think we were able to calm the situation down,” he told EURACTIV.
Fight over the future of democracy
Others were more concerned with recent developments and said that the adoption of “lex Babiš” was not sufficient to solve the problem.
“Technically, the media were separated from their owner, but the leaked recording proved contacts between the owner – also at the time when he did not technically own the media anymore – and the editorial staff,” Chair of the Czech Syndicate of Journalists Adam Černý said at the LIBE hearing.
The debate in the European Parliament was held in reaction to a leaked audio recording, allegedly catching Babiš instructing a journalist employed by his media group on how to attack his political rivals.
“In the autumn, we are expecting important parliamentary elections. At the moment, we are amid a fight over the future of parliamentary democracy,” Czech Social Democratic MEP Pavel Poc (S&D) told journalists.
Some MEPs also noted that the problem reaches further than the Czech Republic and called for EU measures that would guarantee media pluralism in Europe.
“Europe still remembers the activities of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy where correct political competition and democracy was harmed,” said Poc.
“It would be easy to say that the 27-years-old Czech democracy has encountered the brutal strength of politicians who pursue their economic and political interest, and that nothing can be done about it. It would be easy, but it would be a huge mistake,” Czech MEP from the opposition TOP 09 party (EPP) Luděk Niedermayer said at the plenary.
“The attempts to manipulate media (…) are just variations of similar problems which come through in various European countries. Therefore, it is good that we can discuss them today,” Niedermayer added.