European media groups have warned that the independence of the Czech public broadcaster is under mounting pressure, ahead of a parliamentary election in the central European nation later this year.
Czech Television (CT) remains one of the few independent public broadcasters in central Europe, where governments in countries such as Poland and Hungary have reduced public media to their mouthpieces.
However, media groups and Czech opposition politicians are worried that new appointments to CT’s governing body, which are due to be voted on in the next parliamentary session starting today, could lead to CT’s autonomy being undermined.
Czech MPs are set to pick four new members of CT’s governing body, the Council. The Council does not directly control the broadcaster’s content, but has the power to fire its director-general.
Opposition MPs have claimed that candidates on the shortlist for the four open positions on the 15-strong Council have been picked not for their media expertise but because their views align with those of the ANO party of prime minister Andrej Babis and its allies.
MPs from ANO deny this. “For us, the only criterion is whether the candidates have met all the requirements for selection required by law,” Stanislav Berkovec, an ANO MP, told the website iRozhlas.cz last month.
However, the situation in Prague has prompted the European Broadcasting Union, which represents public service media, to issue an unusually strong warning about governments across Europe “trying to silence opposition voices by restricting freedom of the press”.
EBU director-general Noel Curran and Delphine Ernotte, the chief executive of France Televisions and EBU president, have written to Czech MPs urging them to protect the independence of the national broadcaster.
“In recent months, it has become alarmingly clear that the Czech Republic’s government is trying to exert pressure on [the independence of Czech Television], directly and indirectly,” the EBU said in a statement.
“It may be that only pressure from outside will preserve the hard-won independence of a public-service broadcaster that is crucial . . . to the democratic future of a nation often seen as a bulwark against authoritarianism in central and eastern Europe.”
The Vienna-based International Press Institute, a media watchdog, has expressed similar concerns, warning that the manoeuvring around the Council appointments could, in the worst case, pave the way for the removal of the current director-general of CT, Petr Dvorak.
“We find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the real aim is to fill the CT Council with enough figures who are critical of Dvorak to ensure that there is a majority to vote to dismiss him when the opportunity arises,” it said.
Observers say that CT’s independence is particularly important, given that many private Czech media groups are controlled by oligarchs. Prime minister Babis, himself a billionaire, owned various titles including two big newspapers through his company Agrofert, before he put his assets in trust in 2017.
“Czech public television, especially its information channel, is one of the most trusted of sources of information, especially concerning the pandemic . . . It is also one of the few which has overall reach and can get to everyone in the country,” said Martin Ehl, a senior journalist at Hospodarske Noviny, a leading Czech daily, and senior associate at the think-tank Visegrad Insight. “It is very important in this media environment, where different oligarchs own different media.”
The battle in Prague comes ahead of a parliamentary election in October, in which Babis’s ANO, which has headed a coalition government for the past four years, is facing a serious challenge from opposition parties. A poll last month put ANO second behind the centrist Pirate party.
The battle also has echoes of conflicts around Europe as public broadcasters in various countries are fighting to preserve their independence against governments who are aggressively seeking to influence output, or hobble the organisations by cutting taxpayer funding.
Poland and Hungary are the most striking examples of how public broadcasters have been turned, through management and staff changes, into enthusiastic champions of the ruling party’s illiberal political agenda. But MEPs and campaigners fear the tactics are spreading to countries such as Slovenia, the Czech Republic and beyond.
Adam Cerny from the Czech journalists’ group, Syndikat Novinaru, said there was “increasing risk” that the Czech Republic could go in the same direction as Poland and Hungary. But he expressed scepticism that ANO would want to have a such a big fight before the election. “I don’t think that Babis wants open political confrontation because of Czech TV,” he said.