Independent Media Under Threat as Czech Republic Tilts Towards Populism

Dogged by corruption and fraud allegations, Andrej Babiš is nevertheless getting a second crack at ruling the Czech Republic. This is bad news for civil liberties groups and independent media.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

On 6 June, Andrej Babiš became prime minister of the Czech Republic for the second time in seven months. This is an extremely concerning development for civil liberties advocates and independent media outlets. The freedom of independent news groups is being threatened both by takeover by Babiš and other oligarchs and by threats to their work and personal well-being.

From Agro to ANO

Andrej Babiš’s road to the top of Czech politics was made possible by his business career, which has made him the country’s second-wealthiest person, largely through his agricultural conglomerate Agrofert. He used a combination of money, connections and good timing to successfully enter the political realm as a populist alternative to the establishment. He founded his own party, ANO – meaning ‘yes’ in English – and quickly rose to become finance minister and then, in December 2017, prime minister.

But allegations of corruption followed him. The source of funding for his business takeovers has never been fully explained, and he remains under criminal investigation over accusations that he fraudulently won some 2 million euros in EU subsidies. This has frustrated his attempts to form a government, though there is now a coalition in place that will have to survive a no-confidence vote on 11 July.

Babiš’s political positions are hard to pin down. Much like other populist leaders, his public statements play heavily on emotion but lack substance. The positions he does make clear are painfully familiar to those of other European populists: he sees immigration and terrorism as the two biggest threats to Europe, and, much like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczynski, sees himself as the saviour of his country’s national identity. In order to strengthen his position, Babiš, like Orban and Kaczynski, is beginning to supress critical voices inside and outside of government – most notably the media.

Controlling the narrative

A government’s crackdown on people’s civil liberties and efforts to control independent bodies vital to the rule of law, such as the judiciary, is known as the “shrinking space” problem. Liberties has previously taken an in-depth look at the shrinking space problem in Romania, Italy and Poland. In the latter, the problem is most noticeable in the government’s actions to hijack the judiciary and bring it under its control; in Italy, the anti-immigration stance of politicians and many media outlets has led to direct legal restrictions on NGOs, not to mention considerable financial and reputational harm.

In the Czech Republic, the shrinking space issue is particularly serious with regard to a free and independent media. Babiš’s political rise has been accompanied – if not directly enabled – by his takeover of some of the country’s largest media outlets. He founded ANO in 2011 and began acquiring media companies shortly thereafter. In 2013, he bought the media group MAFRA, which publishes one of the most popular newspapers in the country. He then bought the newspapers Lidové noviny and Metro, together read by more than a million Czechs everyday. He followed this with the acquisition of Radio Impuls, which enjoys the largest audience in the country.

A 2015 report by Foreign Policy found that Babiš’s media holdings “regularly feature sympathetic coverage of Babiš – and criticism of his opponents.” That report, released a year after Babiš was named finance minister, also noted that these media outlets had launched investigations into corruption allegations connected to then Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.

Silencing criticism

These attacks are accompanied by attacks on other, critical media outlets. “Babiš’s media also started a slander campaign against me and my newspaper,” journalist Jakub Patočka said in an interview with French journalist Rachel Knaebel. Patočka’s online news site, Deník Referendum, was behind an exposé detailing how Babiš has used his political power to grow his personal fortune. This has brought a criminal charge of slander against Deník Referendum and Patočka.

Patočka has no doubt about the real motive behind this: to silence a critical voice against Babiš. This is old hat from populist authoritarians. In Hungary, Orban has roped in public media while his cronies have bought up private media groups. After taking power in Poland, the right-wing PiS party sacked the management boards of public television and radio broadcasters, turning the nightly news show on public television into “a mouthpiece for the PiS government, lauding its daily successes at home and abroad,” according to a report by Freedom House.

President Zeman is also fomenting distrust and ill will towards journalists. At a press conference in May 2017, Zeman joked that his country had too many journalists and he wanted them "liquidated”; he has referred to journalists as “manure” and “hyenas”; and at another press conference in October of last year, he held up an imitation AK-47 rifle with the words "na novinaru" – for the journalists – emblazoned on the barrel.

This year’s Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index specifically made reference to the latter issue and said that “[t]he level of media ownership concentration has become critical” following the takeovers by Babiš and other oligarchs. Unsurprisingly, the country fell 11 places, to 34th, from the 2017 Index.

Like Hungary and Poland?

Still, despite Babiš’s grip on power, there are reasons to be hopeful that his populist rhetoric will not resonate with Czech voters quite like it has with people in Hungary and Poland. There are significant cultural differences between the Czech Republic and other Eastern bloc countries currently enthralled with populism.

“The patriotic factor is not so important in Czech politics, and the ‘blood and land’ factor is almost absent,” Patočka said. “While there are visions of ‘Great Hungary’ and ‘Great Poland,’ there is nothing like a concept of a ‘Great Czechia.’”

But Czechs have been swayed by Babiš’s populist rhetoric and are clearly receptive to his fearmongering about immigration. While the European Commission concentrates its concern on Poland and Hungary, a third member of the Visegrad Group is sliding more and more towards authoritarianism. And while the EU has thus far understandably focused on governments’ takeover of the judiciary and civil society, the erosion of independent media can be equally dangerous to democracy.

Whether Babiš’s populism moves the country fully into the authoritarianism of other Visegrad members remains unclear. But it is extremely troubling that so much of what he has already done has gone unnoticed outside of the Czech Republic. Indeed, the EU could soon come down with yet another Central European headache.