“Anti-Babiš” law to bar government members from media ownership – but will it work?

Andrej Babiš, photo: CTK

In a move clearly targeted at billionaire businessman and ANO finance minister Andrej Babiš, MPs in the Czech lower house voted on Wednesday to bar media ownership on the part of members of the government. Another proposal to prevent ministers from running companies was rejected. But how will the vote actually affect Mr. Babiš’s media empire?

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
ANO chief and finance minister Andrej Babiš is one of the Czech Republic’s richest people. His Agrofert group is a huge player in agriculture and chemicals and also owns two of the country’s top newspapers and its most popular radio station.

A conflict of interest bill tabled by Jan Chvojka of the Social Democrats – ANO’s partners in the coalition government – barring government members from media ownership was clearly aimed at reining in Mr. Babiš.

MP Petr Gazdík of the opposition Mayors and Independents echoed the views of many of the ANO chief’s opponents during Wednesday’s debate.

“That which most defines conflict of interest from my perspective is media ownership. It is not possible that public opinion be influenced by media owners who are at the same time members of the government.”

While the media ownership section of the bill was approved by deputies, they rejected a provision under which government members would be prevented from running companies.

Martin Plíšek,  photo: Zpelechova,  CC BY 4.0
An amendment put forward by Martin Plíšek of the opposition TOP 09 barring companies at least quarter-owned by members of the government from receiving state grants or taking part in public tenders was passed.

Mr. Babiš stayed out of the lower house while voting took place but was in the building and spoke to journalists soon afterwards.

“I will leave this to my lawyers. They’ll study it and make recommendations as to what I should do next. What Mr. Plíšek claims isn’t true. As far as I know, such a law only exists in Austria – other countries don’t have it.”

While the bar on media ownership has been eye-catching, David Ondráčka of corruption watchdogs Transparency International says he expects Mr. Babiš to find ways to circumvent it legally.

“I don’t believe that this concentration of power – which is really problematic, and I completely acknowledge that – can actually be fixed by some amendments or regulations.”

So from what you’re saying, it seems you think it’s unlikely that Mr. Babiš will divest his media assets before the next elections?

David Ondráčka,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“My estimate is that he will wait for the final result and then he will challenge it at the Constitutional Court, as to whether it’s not in breach of the constitution and his own rights.

“If not, he will find some legally ways to find a way around it. So I don’t expect any dramatic change.

“And moreover, he will use it politically for his own political benefit. He will argue, You see, they want to get rid of me so badly that they need to create specific laws against Babiš or against my person.”