Concerns over influence grow as ANO boss Babiš eyes broadcast media outlets

Andrej Babiš, photo: CTK

As the head of ANO, Andrej Babiš is currently involved in talks on forming a coalition government. But the business tycoon is also in negotiations to buy the Czech Republic’s most popular radio station, and there are indications he also wants to buy a TV channel. Given the fact it is only five months since Mr. Babiš bought a major newspaper publisher, are the freshly-elected politician’s media activities a cause for concern?

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
Untested and rank outsiders a year previously, Andrej Babiš’s ANO party took over 18.5 percent of the vote in last month’s elections. They now look set to play a major role in a coalition government headed by the Social Democrats.

Mr. Babiš is one of the Czech Republic’s richest men, with his Agrofert a dominant player in agriculture, food and other industries.

But it is his media interests that are making headlines. After launching a free regional magazine last year, this June he acquired Mafra, publisher of dailies Mladá fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny.

Now he is looking to acquire more outlets. These include, Mr. Babiš confirmed this week, Impuls, which has the highest listenership of any Czech radio station. Meanwhile, an Agrofert representative has said the firm is also in the market to buy a TV channel.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
But is this a cause for concern? Journalist Robert Břešťan of Ekonom says it may well be.

“He’s not the only wealthy Czech businessman who owns media. I myself work for Economia, and the owner is a wealthy businessman as well [coal baron Zdeněk Bakala]. But Mr. Babiš is the only one with political ambitions. He’s now a member of parliament and he will probably be a member of government. So I think plenty of people can be afraid that he can use his media influence for the purpose of his business.”

The ANO chief recently attempted to assuage possible worries about his growing media power, telling the New York Times he intended to put Mafra on the stock market and retain only a minority stake. Commentator Erik Best says that may just be a smokescreen.

“I think he’s talking about an IPO or a stock market listing so that he diverts attention from what he’s really doing, which is building a media empire that will be used for either political or commercial aims. I don’t mean commercial in the sense that the media properties themselves would be making money, but they would be used to somehow benefit his existing businesses in food and agriculture.”

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
When Mr. Babiš bought Mafra in the summer, wry comparisons were made to former Italian prime minister and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi. Erik Best agrees that such an analogy holds more water today.

“Then he was able to say that he wasn’t a politician. Now he clearly is a politician. At least in the case of the radio station, if that deal is actually concluded, it would be a deal that was done while he has been a politician. So in that sense I think somewhat of a comparison to Berlusconi – at least in the consolidation of political and media power – is appropriate.”