Politician’s Media Ambitions Raise Specter of Censorship

Journalists Debate Press Influence of Businessman-Turned-Finance Minister

By Alison Wallach

Photo courtesy of issaacMao/Flickr

Photo courtesy of issaacMao/Flickr

In June 2013, the second richest man in the Czech Republic and an aspiring politician, Andrej Babis, purchased one of the largest media groups in the country, MAFRA, from its German owners.

Appointed Finance Minister at the start of 2014, Babis controls the country’s three largest dailies, two radio stations, a television station and two free newspapers that are popular with commuters. With Babis’ acquisitions come concerns from some journalists and critics over the sanctity of press freedom in a country where the 1989 Velvet Revolution finally debunked four decades of government censorship and propaganda.

“I’d be crazy if I wanted to influence the media. It would certainly spread among the journalists, which would be the end of me,” Babis said of his media investments, according to the European Journalism Observatory, a network of collaborating research institutes from 13 countries.

The Czech Republic does not limit cross-media ownership but instead restricts market dominance, and so far, the Slovak-born entrepreneur has not overstepped his bound.

Babis earned a net worth of $2 billion as of March 2013 as founder and former CEO of the agricultural, chemical and food holding group Agrofert, which runs over 200 companies and is the largest private employer in the country. Babis, chairman of the pro-business party ANO, which earned enough votes in recent elections to join the government coalition, is the first individual in the Czech Republic to hold such significant political, corporate, and media power simultaneously, commentators have noted.

“The truth is you as a journalist simply cannot write a single sentence without touching a business, political or private interest of Mr. Babis. Simply because it is so wide,” said Jindrich Sidlo, a reporter for Hospodarskych noviny, who recently turned down Babis’ offers to edit at the newsdailies Mlada fronta dnes and Lidove noviny.

Journalists seem divided over whether Babis’ media ownership will lead to journalistic self-censorship and distrust among readers. For Michal Musil, a former member of the editorial team at Mlada fronta dnes, Babis’ ownership presents a fundamental challenge to the media’s credibility.

Andrej Babis

Andrej Babis, owner of MAFRA, is often accused of using his wealth to influence news. Photo courtesy of Google.com

“Even when the journalists are really fair and unbiased and impartial, still they face the credibility problem, which is really and definitely much worse than it would have been in the past when it was owned by a German media company,” Musil said. In other words, people do not trust journalists who are working, even tangentially, under those in government.

However, Jarda Plesl, editor of the weekly news magazine Tyden and a former deputy editor at Lidove noviny, suggests that the risk of competitor backlash from smaller, niche newspapers will keep Babis from manipulating the content of MAFRA’s entities.

“If the media outlets owned by Babis don’t cover certain news that concern Babis, then the competitors are going to write about it, and they can pretty much embarrass the journalists that work for Babis,” Plesl said. “So I think that it’s very much in Babis’ interests to keep the newspapers very clean.”

Some pundits have compared Babis to Italy’s former three-term Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose control of the mass media company Mediaset led to allegations of his using the press as a vehicle to promote his political and business interests. But whatever his motivations are, there are those who find the minister’s past just as distasteful as his possible future.

The day after Babis announced his purchase of MAFRA, Tomas Nemecek, professor of Czech and Slovak Politics at New York University in Prague, announced his resignation as a section editor of Lidove noviny. He said if he continued to work under Babis, there would be “a conflict between loyalty to readers and loyalty to owners” in his reporting.  He also noted that Babis stood accused of collaborating with the hated secret police during the communist era.

“We’re constantly told that the world is opening up… But I see it more as the world is closing…”

Still, scant evidence has yet to emerge that Babis has taken an active role in determining the content of his acquisition. One well-known exception is when shortly after purchasing Lidove noviny, Babis allegedly called reporter Jakub Kalal to express his frustration that the paper did not cover Babis’ press conference.

Under Babis, Mlada fronta dnes denied a contract extension to environmental reporter Vladimir Sevela, who had coincidentally written critically of a Babis pick for Environment Minister. Babis denied claims that Sevela’s termination was linked to his criticism of Babis.

“This is nonsense, I’m not aware of this situation and I don’t interfere with editorial matters. It is an absurd attempt to spread lies,” Babis told a Web news site in a text message, insisting that he does not have a say in Mlada fronta dnes’ editorial decisions.

Still, if not wishing to purchase influence, one has to wonder why Babis purchased three prominent newspapers.  Profitability of the print media sector continues on its steady decline following the 2008 economic recession and under the pressure of digitalization. In the Czech Republic, paid-for dailies saw a 22 percent decrease in the circulation of between 2005 and 2009, the fourth most dramatic decline among Central and Eastern European countries, according to the Czech Republic’s Country Report.

Photo courtesy of NS Newsflash/Flickr

Many worry that Babis is using the press as a vehicle to promote his political and business interests. Photo courtesy of NS Newsflash/Flickr

“We’re constantly told that the world is opening up… But I see it more as the world is closing, and this is just another indication of that, because there’s local, wealthy businesspeople buying up the media in their own countries,” Todd Nesbitt, Chair of the Department of Communication and Mass Media Studies at the University of New York in Prague, said.

“No one is naïve enough to think that they’re buying this media in order to make money from it, because you can’t make money from newspapers anymore,” Nesbitt said, adding that in Babis’ case, the motivation stands clear as political.

For Nesbitt, Babis’ closeness to the media affects the way he looks at Mlada fronta dnes and Lidove noviny.

“I have a hard time getting past the mental block of this is a newspaper, which is owned by a person that holds 18 percent of the seats in Parliament ,” he said, adding, “Why aren’t more people upset?”

With the media landscape changing rapidly, there are those who believe ownership is irrelevant as the world of online media makes available to consumers a vast array of diverse information.

Musil notes that the fact-checking capability is quite literally in public hands.  But for Nemecek, that’s not reassuring.

“Evidently many people are not concerned about his conflict of interest. Many people are not concerned about his past or present. Many people are not concerned about his control of media and over the very powerful finance ministry. It was their choice, they had all the information,” Nemecek said.

Alison Wallach is in the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development Class of 2016. Her hometown is Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

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Categories: Culture, News, Spring 2014 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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