Former Czech PM uses newspapers he owns to attack media integrity | Czech Republic
Populist former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has been accused of subverting press freedom after using the front pages of two national newspapers he owns to attack the integrity of independent media and urge readers to follow him on social media as an alternative.
The extraordinary campaign was carried out by the Mladá Fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny newspapers a week before Babiš – a billionaire tycoon and one of the Czech Republic’s richest men – was put on trial for alleged subsidy fraud.
Critics said he humiliated and explicitly belittled the work of the journalists he employs by using the newspapers – previously among the most respected in the Czech Republic – to publish two identical front pages dominated by his photo and bearing the headline: “ Do you believe the media?”
A series of main follow-up questions posed below: “Don’t you feel like TV, newspapers and news websites only tell you part of the story? That they don’t talk about anything? Are they leaving something out? Or are they deliberately omitting something? »
Babiš’s supporters justified the front-page post as merely an advertisement for his social media TV show, Čau lidi, which other Czech newspapers had refused to accept. His message continued: “Try my advice. Every Monday afternoon. For more than five years. On Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.
But Veronika Sedláčková, of the Czech branch of the International Press Institute, said it was “an attack on serious journalism and serious media”.
She added: “Mr. Babiš has been doing this for a long time and it is not so different from his previous statements. Its aim is to weaken the influence of serious media and weaken public confidence in journalists and democratic institutions in the Czech Republic.
His post – ostensibly underlined with his signature – was published ahead of Babiš’s scheduled appearance in Prague City Court on September 12 for fraudulently obtaining 2 million euros (£1.7m) in European funds for the small businesses to build a hotel and conference center. in the bohemian countryside.
If convicted, Babiš, 68, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, although prosecutors have offered three years probation and a fine of 10 million Czech crowns (£350,000). The former prime minister was charged in March last year, five months after he lost power in a general election, after MPs voted to lift his parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
Babiš, the leader of the Action for Disgruntled Citizens (ANO) party, denies the charges, which date back to 2007, and describes them as politically motivated.
Michal Klíma, the Czech Commissioner for Media and Countering Disinformation, said Babiš’s actions were an attack on media freedom.
“The former editor of Mladá Fronta Dnes said on social media that this represents the ultimate collapse of his former newspaper and I absolutely agree – it’s terrible,” Klima said. “But Andrej Babiš has been attacking free media from the start, and that’s why he bought these newspapers: to influence them and steer them away from the path of independence.
Jiří Pehe, a Czech political analyst and director of New York University in Prague, said Babiš’s anti-media missive was “a gross abuse of newspapers” aimed at distracting attention from his legal troubles.
Both newspapers fell under Babiš’s control in 2013 after he bought the Mafra publishing group – also giving him ownership of the Czech Republic’s largest commercial radio station – and added it to his conglomerate. sprawling Agrofert, a multi-industrial empire comprising more than 250 companies.
Many journalists then left, and observers say Babiš used the posts to promote his political interests, including a possible candidacy for the next presidential election in January 2023.
Babiš has not declared his candidacy, but has traveled the country in a motorhome in recent months to organize political rallies bearing the mark of campaign events. Analysts, however, believe he is undecided about his candidacy given that private internal polls indicate he is unlikely to beat Petr Pavel, a retired army general and former army commander. NATO.
Babiš’s campaign to be re-elected as prime minister was hit hard days before last year’s poll when the Guardian and other outlets revealed in the Pandora Papers that he had bought a castle in the south from France for £13million, with funds from a complex and mysterious offshore structure, years before he entered politics.
At the time, his office did not respond to Guardian requests for comment on his offshore companies.
French prosecutors recently announced they had opened an investigation into the case.