Fears of media independence in the Czech Republic are growing
European media groups have warned that the independence of Czech public television is under increasing pressure ahead of parliamentary elections in the Central European nation this year.
However, Czech media groups and opposition politicians are concerned about the new appointments to the governing body of the CT, which will be voted on in the next parliamentary session from today, as it could undermine the autonomy of the CT.
Czech parliamentarians will elect four new members of the governing body of the CT Council. The board does not directly control the content of the television, but has the power to release its CEO.
Opposition lawmakers have claimed that they have chosen candidates from the list of 15 open positions in 15 council positions not because of their media specialization, but because their views are in line with Prime Minister Andrej Babis ’ANO party and its allies.
ANO MPs deny that. “For us, the only criterion is whether the candidates have met all the requirements for choosing the law,” ANO MP Stanislav Berkovec told iRozhlas.cz last month.
However, the European Broadcasting Union, which represents the public service media in the Prague situation, has issued a regular warning about governments across Europe “trying to silence opposition voices by restricting press freedom”.
EBU CEO Noel Curran and France Televisions CEO Delphine Ernotte and EBU president have written to Czech parliamentarians asking them to support the independence of the national media.
“In recent months, it has become clear that the government of the Czech Republic is trying to put pressure [the independence of Czech Television], directly and indirectly, ”the EBU said in a statement.
“Only the pressure from outside can save us from gaining the independence of a key public service broadcaster… To the democratic future of a nation that is often seen as protection against authoritarianism in Central and Eastern Europe.”
The Vienna-based International Press Institute, the media watchdog, has expressed similar concerns, warning that maneuvers around Council appointments could, in the worst case, open the way for the removal of Petr Dvorak, the current CEO of CT.
“We find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the real goal is to fill the CT Council with enough figures that are critical of Dvorak to ensure that there is a majority to throw him out when there is a chance,” he said.
Observers say the independence of the CT is particularly important, as many private Czech media groups are controlled by oligarchs. Prime Minister Babis, himself a billionaire, held several titles, including two major newspapers through his company Agrofert, before putting his assets in trust in 2017.
“Czech public television, especially its news channel, is one of the most reliable sources of information, especially in terms of the pandemic…. chief, and chief member of the Visegrad Insight think-tank. “It’s very important in this media environment, because the oligarchs own different media.”
The battle for Prague comes ahead of the October parliamentary elections. Babis ANO, who has led the coalition government for the past four years, is facing a serious challenge from opposition parties. Last month’s polls put the ANO second behind the centrist Pirates party.
The struggle also has repercussions of conflicts across Europe, with public radio broadcasters in several countries struggling to preserve independence, aggressively influencing the exit or reducing funding for taxes that hinder institutions.
Poland and Hungary are the most striking examples of how public television, through changes in management and staff, has become the enthusiastic champions of the ruling party’s liberal political agenda. But MEPs and campaigners fear the tactic is spreading to Slovenia, the Czech Republic and other countries.
Adam Cerny, a member of the Syndikat Novinaru group of Czech journalists, said there was an “increasing risk” that the Czech Republic would go in the same direction as Poland and Hungary. But he expressed skepticism that the ANO wanted to have such a big fight before the election. “I don’t think Babis wants an open political confrontation for Czech television,” he said.