Potential threats to Czech press freedom debated in Brussels

Photo: European People's Party, CC BY 2.0

The European Commission and European Parliament are examining complaints put forth by Czech MEPs and free press advocates that ANO leader Andrej Babiš’s influence over certain media outlets pose a threat to Czech democracy. Also under the microscope are recent comments made, supposedly in jest, by President Miloš Zeman to Vladimir Putin about the need to liquidate journalists.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: Filip Jandourek
The issue of the potential erosion of Czech press freedom is set to be debated by the European Parliament on Thursday. But on Tuesday, the matter was brought before the EP’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). Testimony was heard from a number of press freedom advocates, including Adam Černý, head of the Czech Syndicate of Journalists. Additionally, Julie Majerczak, head of the Brussels office of NGO Reporters Without Borders, criticised off-hand comments, made during a recent trip to China, by President Zeman to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, calling for the liquidation of journalists.

The perceived threat posed by Babiš – recently engulfed in a scandal involving apparent abuse of his (now former) media holdings – and also President Zeman, led Czech MEPs from the TOP 09 and Christian Democrats to press for the matter – via the European People's Party faction – to be brought to the attention of the EU.

Manfred Weber,  photo: © European Union 2017 - Source: EP
European People's Party MEP Manfred Weber of Germany, who is a member of the LIBE committee, agreed that there is a need to address potential threats to Czech press freedom.

“The Czech media landscape is very liberal and open today. There are many independent journalists, and the Czech Republic ranks among the top countries in terms of press freedom. Despite this, some questions remain unanswered. For example, the news that Andrej Babiš, in media owned by him, is exercising an influence over news and journalistic output. These questions are being discussed in Prague, and they also need to be debated in a European context, because a free media is on of the fundamental pillars of our continent.”

The European Parliament committee hearing also heard from a number of MEPs, including Czech ones. For example TOP 09 MEP Jaromír Štětina warned that the current threat to the Czech press landscape could serve as a first step to the threatening of Czech democracy itself. ANO leader Andrej Babiš, who was recently forced to rid himself of his media holdings via new anti conflict-of-interest legislation – at least on paper – has denied exerting influence over MAFRA publishing house publications such as Mladá fronta dnes, which are owned by the Babiš-founded AGROFERT agricultural conglomerate. ANO party MPs did not take part in the committee hearing.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki
Meanwhile, the European Commission also took up the matter. But Giuseppe Abbamonte, who heads the Commission’s media and data directorate told the committee that it was a matter for the Czech Republic to address, and that the Commission was powerless to intervene. Christian Democrat MEP Tomáš Zdechovský criticised his colleagues for bringing the matter to the EU, saying it was a matter best addressed on a national level, but he also had harsh words in Parliament for the Czech president:

“We are very ashamed of President Miloš Zeman in the Czech Republic. Because many of his statements are made while in a state that can hardly be described as sober. Unfortunately, we will have to keep being ashamed of him so long as he is president, but don’t take his words as being a real attack on media freedom.”