New government media advisor: “Disinformation isn’t covered by freedom of speech”

Michal Klíma

For the first time ever, the Czech government has a special representative for media and disinformation. His name is Michal Klíma and he has been in charge of several of the country’s leading media outlets in the past. More recently, he has also monitored the Czech media environment for the International Press Institute. I asked him why the government has decided to set up this position and what exactly will be his task.

“When it comes to the media industry, there has been no responsible office on the level of the government.

“That meant, for instance, that while nearly all companies received some sort of support from the state during the coronavirus pandemic, the media did not, because there was no ministry or office responsible for them.

“This is of course just one example, but there are also many other problems. We have no media support infrastructure like there is in other countries.

“Therefore, the idea now is to have a person who is responsible for this and that person is myself.

Source: Gerd Altmann,  Pixabay/Radio Prague International,  CC0

“At the same time, we have to look into the matter of disinformation, because the Czech Republic is under heavy attack from Russian and Chinese disinformation channels.

“We want to counter this and, for that to happen, we need to develop a whole counter system. That’s my other responsibility.”

So, on the topic of disinformation, I am guessing that you will be working in conjunction with the Ministries of Defence and Interior?  Or how exactly is it going to work?

“Yes, exactly, with these two ministries as well as with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is a matter of strategic communications.

“We do not have any centralised strategic communications systems such as there is in other countries. Therefore we want to create this on a similar blueprint to other countries.”

What do you intend to focus on in this position?

“When it comes to the media, in many Western countries such as in Scandinavia, France, Belgium and the Netherlands there is legislation aimed at upholding or supporting different types of media.

“We don’t have anything of that sort in this country right now, whether it be in support of new media, essential media, or media houses that have just started out.

“Therefore, my idea is to find a system that will get the backing of Parliament.

MAFRA | Photo: Aktron,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“I am also helping to change the legislation on public service media, namely Czech Television and Czech Radio.

“Last year, I was working with non-governmental organisations and we prepared some changes to the law. I hope I will now be able to support these from my position.”

You are also the author of a new International Press Institute report that is focused on the media scene in the Czech Republic. It describes Czech media as having been exposed to pressure from the previous PM Andrej Babiš and also points to the growing capture of private media by a select group of wealthy Czech individuals. You write that media capture in this country is quite different in its form than that which experts have pointed out has taken place in Hungary. Could you explain how you meant that a bit?

“This is quite a big report, so I can’t mention everything that is brought up in it. However, in general, I don’t think that the media situation here was as bad under the previous government as it was in Hungary and it is certainly better now than it was then.

“The difference lies therein that the public media was never under the control of the main party or of the government, such as is the case in Poland or in Hungary.

“That said, we did have a very special situation when Andrej Babiš, even before he became prime minister, controlled [MAFRA], one of the largest media houses in the Czech Republic. It includes three daily newspapers. It also has an influence network of radio stations and websites.

“It is therefore necessary to say that we are in a very special situation.

Andrej Babiš | Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“There is also a network of very wealthy individuals, we call them oligarchs in our report, who control many other prominent media outlets.

“These people were often dependent on the government, for example when it comes to large projects that they are involved in, and when Andrej Babiš was prime minister it was quite hard to find someone who was willing to criticise the government if they were also in need of government cooperation.

“This has changed now with Andrej Babiš no longer leading the state executive and it is therefore not a problem anymore.”

Ok, so in other words you are saying that there is currently no need to introduce tougher regulations, such as limiting the number of outlets a single person can own?

“Yes.”

Is there something else that you plan to do in your new position?

“There is a lot of criticism that the government is endangering the freedom of the press by countering disinformation…”

On that note I should probably mention that, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the government has chosen to block several websites which were tagged as disinformation news sites?

“Yes. This government will never endanger the freedom of speech.

“Disinformation is not covered by freedom of speech. It is the propaganda of the governments of Russia or China.

“Letting foreign governments spread and lies and disinformation would be the same as allowing the German government in World War II screen their [weekly newsreels] in London cinemas.

“This is something that everyone would agree is impossible. However, while it may look a bit different on the internet nowadays, what is happening is basically the same thing.”