Czech Republic plummets on media freedom index

Photo: European People’s Party, CC BY 2.0

Growing hostility towards journalists openly encouraged by political leaders is one of the major themes of this year’s Reporters Without Borders’ global press freedom index. And that’s one of the factors also responsible for the Czech Republic’s dramatic drop in the rankings.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Political leaders no longer seeing a free media as fundamental to democracy but as an adversary which they should openly take on and display their aversion. That’s a worldwide trend highlighted in Reporters Without Frontiers latest World Press Freedom Index. The findings and rankings were released on Wednesday.

And the Czech Republic is criticized in the report for its part in undermining free media and casting journalists as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. President Miloš Zeman’s brandishing an imitation Kalashnikov and only half jokingly suggesting it should be used on journalists is one episode cited by Reporters Without Frontiers. They also mentioned his frequent descriptions of them as ‘manure’ and ‘hyenas.’

And the head of state more recently astonished observers by using his inauguration speech after re-election to attack certain parts of the Czech press. Zeman argued that journalists working for the top business daily and political weekly should not be respected because they belonged to the media empire of billionaire businessman Zdeněk Bakala.

The report adds that media concentration in the Czech Republic has now reached ‘a critical level’ after the spending spree by local oligarchs since 2008 bought out foreign owners who for the most part had taken a ‘hands off’ attitude to their assets. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš is one of the new owners having one of the country’s most influential daily newspapers.

Overall, the Czech Republic dropped 11 places in the ranking of 180 countries to 34th. It now trails a series of African countries, such as Ghana, South Africa, Namibia, judged to have higher levels of media freedom.

Pauline Ades-Mevel compiles the rankings for EU and Balkan countries. She summed up the Czech Republic’s latest performance:

ʺThe Czech Republic is one of the countries that fell the most in our index this year, along with Malta, Slovakia, and Serbia. Obviously it’s not very good for the country because we have noticed a deterioration of the situation not only this year but in previous years.ʺ

Photo: European People’s Party,  CC BY 2.0
Neighbour Slovakia fell 10 places to 27 with the ranking put together even before the death of journalist Ján Kuciak. And Poland and Hungary are a long way further down the rankings at 58 and 73.

And Reporters Without Frontiers’ Ades-Mevel says she has little confidence that Czech public service, television and radio, are well placed to fulfil their role of protecting media pluralism and press freedom:

ʺWe fear that unfortunately we face the same problems as in neighbouring countries with attempts to influence the editorial line of the media. RSF has deplored these attacks on the editorial line at Czech public media in the past months and we consider that, like other countries in the region, the independence is at risk.ʺ

At the moment the Social Democrat party says it is seeking the culture ministry in a coalition with the ANO party to safeguard public service media. But media independence has not always appeared a top priority in the past.