Czech prime minister calls for media ownership ceilings

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka has said the country should set limits on the proportion of the local media market that one or a handful of owners can corner. The call comes as European public broadcasting bosses are gathered in Prague to set goals and share insights into how they can keep and raise their profile in an ever more fragmented and competitive media market.

Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTK
The Czech prime minister’s comments on media pluralism and ownership came in a meeting with European public broadcasting bosses as their grouping, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), meets in Prague for its strategy setting general assembly. Bohuslav Sobotka said that the Czech media market should be subject to stepped up regulation in the future. The percentage limits on the share of the market that individual owners can grab could be limited.

The Social Democrat leader suggested the new tougher rules should deal with cross ownership, where one media magnate has stakes, for example, in newspapers, radio, and television, so that media monopolies do not take shape. Inspiration, Sobotka said, could be taken from developed countries.

Where exactly the future new ownership ceilings might be set and whether they would also set limits for individual sections of the market, such as newspapers, is not too clear at the moment. The prime minister did however that ownership of two national daily papers might still come under the likely limits.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
That comment was almost certainly aimed at ANO leader and minister of finance Andrej Babiš. He owns the national dailies Mladá Fronta Dnes and Lidové Noviny as well as the country’s most successful commercial radio station, Radio Impuls.

Potential abuse of media ownership and the threat it could present to democracy and public life is not a new theme for the prime minister. This is what he had to say at the Social Democrat’s party congress in mid-March, which also took aim at Babiš. “For a social state to exist there must be a free and democratic society and that requires and important role for Social Democrats. We must be a guarantee of freedom in the country, a guarantee of freedom of speech, parliamentary democracy, and we must be able to uphold the existence and independence of public service broadcasters and defend a fair electoral system.”

There is little doubt that the Social Democrats and other political parties feel that Babiš’ media ownership influences the stories that are or and are not covered in his papers and radio station. ANO consistently tops the poll ratings as the most popular political party in the country. But Babiš insists that he has a hands off approach as regards his media assets. Self censorship is, however, a fairly well known phenomenon in the media.

Andrej Babiš, photo: Filip Jandourek
And critics of Babiš and ANO’s media influence would also highlight the critical line and stories written by some of his papers have taken in recent months against public television broadcaster Czech Television. This week ANO member of parliament Martin Komárek called for increased powers for Czech Television’s council to probe its housekeeping. Politicians have previously called for its licence fees, the source of 90 percent of its revenues, to be cut and criticized its programme performance. Changes in the way the tv broadcaster’s governing council is drawn up are currently being drawn up in the Ministry of Culture.