Babisconi? Hardly, say observers

Andrej Babiš, photo: CTK

The Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš made a major acquisition on the Czech media market this week – buying the Mafra publishing house that prints two of the country’s biggest dailies, Mladá Fronta Dnes and Lidové Noviny. The move still needs to be approved by the country’s anti-trust office, but if given the green light, marks a significant step forward for Mr Babiš – who has political ambitions too.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
With an estimated fortune of 1.4 billion dollars, Andrej Babiš is the second richest man in the Czech Republic – and the 913th richest in the world. His Agrofert agricultural, chemical and food processing empire controls more than 230 subsidiaries and with 57,000 hectares of arable land owned or rented he essentially controls 0.7% of the country’s surface.

He was already a minor media magnate before this acquisition, with a stake in a handful of national, regional and Slovak publications. The acquisition of Mafra from its German owners was preceded by much speculation that he’d snapped up Ringier, which publishes the hugely successful tabloid Blesk.

Those rumours proved unfounded, but the purchase of Mladá Fronta Dnes and Lidové Noviny gives him a major slice of the Czech media market. Mladá Fronta is the country’s second most widely read newspaper after Blesk, and the biggest broadsheet; Lidové Noviny meanwhile is still the paper of record for bearded former dissidents and intellectuals.

His political ambitions have prompted comparisons with Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, but observers such as Václav Sochor, editor-in-chief of the Czech publication Marketing & Media, say such comparisons are overblown.

Photo: Archive of Radio Prague
“There is a fundamental difference between Mr Babiš and Mr Berlusconi – up to now at least. It may be different in a couple of years, but now all Mr Babiš has done is buy one of the biggest media houses. His share of the Czech media market, however, is not as great and he is not as influential as Mr Berlusconi in Italy. Mr Babiš does not have a TV station with a reach that could be described as considerable. Mr Babiš does not have a party that would be part of the government – and cannot even have the ambition of being the principle political party in parliament after the next elections. But he’s starting. He’s starting to build up his empire, and whether it will be pure entrepreneurship, whether he’s simply trying to make money, or whether his principle aim is to gain political influence by buying a publishing house: this of course remains to be seen.”

In 2012 Andrej Babiš registered his ANO 2011 civic movement as a political party, although it has yet to make any impact on nationwide or even local politics. As for Mafra, he told reporters he would act solely as an investor, and would not speak to journalists from either paper or even give interviews to them.