Hlídací pes’s Robert Břešťan: Prima bias revelations may ultimately help Czech journalism

Robert Břešťan, photo: Khalil Baalbaki

Revelations last week that TV Prima management ordered reporters to present refugees in a negative light were a bombshell on the Czech media scene. The story centred on an audio recording posted by the investigative journalism website Hlídací pes, whose editor-in-chief, Robert Břešťan, came into our studios to discuss the scandal. But before we arrived at that subject, I asked Břešťan, who is 37, about his own beginnings in the journalism trade.

Robert Břešťan,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki
“It was great, in fact, because my first years were here at Czech Radio. There was a great woman here – her name is Miluše Tikalová – and she established a group of young journalists.

“It was a sort of school of journalism, preparation for journalistic work, here at Czech Radio.

“It was a great experience, because we really started from the bottom of this profession. I consider it a great practical approach and a great way to become a good journalist.”

You also worked at the Czech BBC which for me was one of the best Czech media outlets in my years of living here, if not the best. What did you get in particular from working for the BBC?

“In one word it was professionalism. I was really forced to be greatly prepared for interviews, to be sure about pronunciation of every foreign word we used and so in.

“Yes, it was professionalism – and a chance to… touch journalism with such a great history.

“It was also an opportunity to spend some time in London, at Bush House, where the centre of the BBC World Service was as at that time. It was really great.”

Was the Czech BBC a kind of school of excellence? Because so many of your then colleagues are now top journalists here.

“Yes, I completely agree. A few days ago I spoke to Vít Kolář, the former head of the Czech section and we spoke about this.

“By the way, it’s precisely 10 years since the closure of the BBC Czech section.

“I completely agree that my former colleagues are very successful journalists. It’s really nice to see it.”

If we could speak about the Czech media landscape in general, one big change has been that while in the 1990s many people complained that all the media were foreign owned, but today – almost without exception – the newspapers and magazines are all owned by Czech, or Slovak, oligarchs. But the situation isn’t perhaps appreciably better for journalists or consumers of media.

“The situation is not better. On the other hand, we can see this situation as an opportunity.

“After Mr. [Andrej] Babiš bought the media house Mafra [publishers of Mladá fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny], plenty of good journalists left and established several interesting projects. For example, the monthly magazine Reportér – it’s a great project.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
“You can look at the situation from different directions. On the one hand, there’s the oligarchisation of the media. On the other, there is a new field for new media – and our project Hlídacípes.org is one of them.”

But I imagine not all of these outlets that the people who left Mafra have gone to can succeed or last in the longer term – is it the case that experienced journalists are finding that there are fewer and fewer places they can work, if they want to be independent to some degree?

“Definitely. It’s completely true. Of course from time to time I myself think about what will happen in one, two, three, four years, or what I will do if Hlídací pes closes for some reason.

“I don’t see so many opportunities for myself, but I will see [laughs].

“But you are right – for good quality journalism and independent journalism the field is really smaller and smaller.”

In concrete terms, how has Babiš’s ownership of Mafra impacted Mladá fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny?

“You would probably need a good, deep analysis of this.

“But again, you can look at this case from different angles. One angle is for example that Mladá fronta Dnes used to be able to a really good quality newspaper with the ability to force prime ministers to step down.

“Just now they don’t do such work.

“And one important plus for Mr. Babiš is that he can be sure that his own newspapers will not force him to leave. If they find some real problem, he will be safe from his media point of view.”

The internet has caused problems for traditional media for many years, because it’s been killing advertising revenues. But today you have many websites, like for example Parlamentní listy, which appear to be news websites but they’re not exactly – they’re politically motivated. Is that making it harder for traditional mainstream media, when you have all these websites that look like news sites but essentially aren’t?

“Yes. I think the traditional media is under pressure. Because these, let’s say, alternative websites have taken quite a lot of attention. They eat a huge part of the advertising cake.

“That’s a problem. But I see a much bigger problem is that it’s causing media illiteracy. Plenty of Czech people are not able to distinguish between truth and lies.

“They consider sites like Aeronet, Parlamentní listy, AC24 as a real alternative – somebody who’s offering them a true picture of the world.

“I think this is also dangerous for the political situation and the atmosphere in society.”

Tell us about Hlídací pes, which could be translated as Guard Dog or Watchdog and which you are the editor in chief of. What in particular encouraged you to start that website, that project?

“It took some time to decide to leave the well-established media house Economia, because I was satisfied there.

“But I was speaking with my colleague Ondřej Neumann about Hlídacípes.org and finally I decided it was a good idea; that it sounded good and that we could do really good work.

“Also I thought that I was in a position, and am in a position, where I could take a risk. I believed and still believe that if for some reason this project finishes I will find some other interesting job again.

“So I was somehow sure that I could take the risk.

“The second important factor in my decision was that we can really do independent journalism in a way that we believe is right.

“Our good example is and was ProPublica.org, a well-known independent journalism project in the USA.

“Of course they have much more money, much more journalists. But this was the example for us.”

How is Hlídací pes funded?

“Because of this project a foundation was established where several wealthy people give money. From this foundation we got the main amount of money for our project.

“Of course we don’t want to be dependent only on this foundation so we’re trying to find other sources of money.

“But I have to confess that without this foundation, which was established mainly because of our project, we would not be able to have our site.”

Recently Hlídací pes was in the news because you broke the story of TV Prima ordering its reporters to present refugees in a negative light. Does that story also reflect a change in the Czech media landscape in recent years?

“I don’t know, in fact. I think that the main change is that one media has decided to criticise another one. That’s something that wasn’t so common in the journalistic community.

“It’s similar with doctors, let’s say. When one of them makes a mistake, other doctors will support him.

“That’s one point. The second point is I guess it’s right to show that somebody is manipulating not only the news but also public opinion.”

Do we know why was Prima ordered by its managers or its owners to report negatively on refugees?

“I don’t know for sure, but it could be some political reason.

“Of course it could also be some reason connected with market share, because Prima know very well that public opinion is strongly against the refugee crisis.

“There could be some private decision. We have heard [on the recording] Mr. [Luboš] Jetmar, the vice chairman of TV Prima, saying that he personally is worried about the future of Europe, because he has a daughter and he doesn’t want her to be forced to wear a burqa when she is 30.

“So there could be plenty of reasons. The political question is very important, but I have no proof that there is some link between Prima and [President Miloš] Zeman or Babiš. It’s hard to prove something like this.”

Does this Prima story possibly signal that we’re moving towards a situation where, like [with TV] in the United States, people choose the media that suits their already existing opinions? This is also the case with newspapers and always has been.

“It’s OK in the USA and in the Czech Republic in connection with the printed media or internet media.

“But TV stations are something different. They are under a law and under this law they are forced and they have promised, when they got their license from the Czech state, to broadcast objective and well-balanced news.

“In the case that they don’t do that, it’s wrongdoing. And not only journalistic wrongdoing but as well it’s a…”

It’s a breach of the regulations.

“It’s breaking the regulations and breaking the law.”

Looking to the future what are your feelings about how the Czech media scene may look in the coming years? Are you optimistic, pessimistic? Are there particular dangers we should look out for?

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“I don’t know. It’s connected with oligarchisation, which we have already discussed.

“You can see some islands of free journalism, which is great.

“I think the future will be really colourful.

“But I hope that this case can help our profession, maybe in the form of some self-regulation. Or maybe higher self-estimation of journalistic staff.”

But does self-regulation work in the media? I think the international experience would suggest that it doesn’t.

“It doesn’t work. But I don’t mean self-regulation in the form of some sort of body or council that will decide what is good and what is wrong.

“I mean self-self-regulation [laughs] – internal regulation of journalists according to which they will be able say, I don’t want to work for a media outlet that forces me to follow orders which I don’t agree with.”