New Czech Media Watchdog Will Have Limited Impact in V4

  • Nicole Ely
  • 20.2.2019 07:46

Politicians and oligarchs in the Visegrad countries have been tightening their grasp on news outlets in the past decades. To address the shrinking media landscape, the International Press Institute welcomed a new branch in the Czech Republic into their fold. However, its overall impact remains to be seen.

The International Press Institute, a global network of journalists and editors dedicated to promoting media freedom, recently announced that they will be adding a Czech branch to their organization in an effort to combat the dwindling press freedom in the region. The organization operates in more than 200 countries to raise awareness about threats to the free flow of news in certain regions.

The Visegrad countries, as well as all of Central Europe, have been facing an increasing threat to independent journalism with politicians and oligarchs vying for control. The situation has become more dire since the rise of populism throughout Europe and increased Russian disinformation campaigns. The hope is that the new media watchdog will lead to greater pluralism in the news as well as better protection for journalists in the Czech Republic and throughout the region. The question is whether the IPI’s efforts are enough to have a noticeable impact on the current media landscape.

 

Since the early 2000s, Czech billionaires have been snatching up newspapers, magazines, and broadcast stations in an attempt to influence coverage to suit their interests.

 

With the exception of Slovakia, the Czech Republic fares better than its Visegrad partners when it comes to media freedom (it ranks more than 20 spots higher than Poland and Hungary on Reporters Without Borders press freedom index). However, ownership of its media outlets has become more concentrated. Since the early 2000s, Czech billionaires have been snatching up newspapers, magazines, and broadcast stations in an attempt to influence coverage to suit their interests. Andrej Babis, who resigned from running Mafra publishing house and was revealed to have pressured editors in order to harm his coalition member CSSD, is one such example. However, it doesn’t end with Babis. In 2006 entrepreneur Zdenek Bakala bought Respekt and then several other publications in following years. In 2014, lawyer and businessman Daniel Kretinsky became the owner of tabloids Aha and Blesk, the most read publication in the country. As a result of this oligarchization of media outlets, the depth and quality of journalism in the Czech Republic has suffered.

Things are not better in the other Visegrad countries. Poland and Hungary are facing increased state control of the media, with the Polish government controlling staff appointments to public broadcast stations and Hungary imposing high taxes on publications critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In Slovakia, journalist Jan Kuciak was investigating ties between former PM Robert Fico’s party and the Italian mob when he was murdered in February 2018. In addition to this, Slovak politicians have put an increasing amount of pressure on the public television channels there, rendering the Czech public broadcast station as the last relatively independent outlet in the region.

 

The European Parliament has already held four debates on the issue of media ownership and regulation in the V4, and politicians ultimately rejected its concerns preferring to deal with such issues internally.

 

The IPI advocates for greater media independence by working with local governments and  journalists to promote best practices, and raising awareness through promotional campaigns as well as reporting and analysis of the situation on the ground. Past programs include building a media law database to protect journalists’ role as public watchdog, documenting violence against journalists, such as keeping a running tally of those who died while reporting stories, and starting a dialogue between local officials and the media. The Czech branch hasn’t opened yet, but Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary all have offices. Most of the work done in the other V4 has focused on countering online harassment of journalists and education around defamations laws, which have become a popular tool for politicians when silencing the media.

Press freedom is more important now than ever, however, measuring the impact of IPI is difficult to do. The European Parliament has already held four debates on the issue of media ownership and regulation in the V4, and politicians ultimately rejected its concerns preferring to deal with such issues internally. Since 2016, all the V4 have fallen in ranking on the press freedom index, some worse than others. Furthermore, politicians like Milos Zeman and Robert Fico have made their contempt for journalists publicly known. The IPI is right to boast support for media freedom in the region, but without more institutional support its overall impact will be limited at best.

About author: Nicole Ely

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