- We have no intention of disciplining any outlets. However, the situation in the Polish media is quite strange in comparison to other countries, including those close to us, like the Czech Republic. They had a significant rearranging of the media market and we also think that it should change here. - Jarosław Kaczyński stated during an interview with the Polish Press Agency.
Since Kaczyński brought up the Czech Republic, it is instructive to take a look at its media market, which the chairman of the Law and Justice party sees as a helpful model for Poland.
Media at the behest of oligarchs
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Czech Republic ranks 40th in the world in terms of media freedom. In 2013, it was ranked 16th. Since then, it saw a dramatic decline after it became apparent how much pressure their owners are exerting on the editorial offices, which has led, among other things, to self-censorship by journalists (according to the latest RSF report, this phenomenon is getting ever more intense in the Czech Republic year to year).
Major acquisitions on the Czech media market began after the great economic crash in 2008, when the media around the world got into financial trouble. Since then, shares from German and French companies have been purchased by Czech oligarchs and businessmen, such as energy tycoon Daniel Kretínský, Petr Kellner (financial sector), and Zdenek Bakala, who made a fortune thanks to privatisation of Czech coal mines. The outlets they control rarely write about controversies surrounding Czech companies and sometimes directly serve as advocates for their businesses.
This was the case at the end of last year, when it came to light that Petr Kellner pushed for publishing of articles in his media which were favourable to China. The aim was to create a climate conducive to granting Huawei a 5G mobile network licence. Kellner, in turn, was counting on Beijing's help in saving his financial business, which was in huge trouble. At the end of last year, Kellner bought TV Nova, the second largest TV station in the country.
However, the most important change on the Czech media market took place in 2013, when Mafra, owned by the current prime minister Andrej Babis, took over two important Czech newspapers - "Mlada Fronta Dnes" and "Lidove Noviny" from the German publishing house. This happened five months before the parliamentary elections in the country.
Three years later, Babis, who was then a deputy prime minister and finance minister in a coalition government with a social democratic party, could not answer the question concerning the reason behind purchasing both newspapers. - I wonder why I needed them,' he told me.
A year later, a recording was released online in which Babis instructed the journalist 'Mlada Fronta Dnes' to release materials compromising his recent coalition partner just before the social democratic party congress, in which the head of the party and Babis' adversary, Bohuslav Sobotka, was fighting for his re-election. Babis was then thrown out of the coalition government by Sobotka because of unpaid taxes (the equivalent of 3 million euros) by his concern Agrofert.
Public media in the Czech Republic are reliable
Two years ago, Babis bought another media outlet, taking over the portfolio of the German publishing house Bauer. The media controlled by Babis do not write about the scandals that are associated with him. Among them is a controversy concerning EU subsidies which, according to Brussels, were unduly paid to his companies. The stakes are huge. Last year, the Babis' empire earned a pure income of nearly 4.5 billion Czech crowns (720 million zlotys), of which the subsidies granted amounted to about 50 million zlotys. Many journalists have left "Mlada Fronta Dnes" in recent years. Some of them are currently working for "Dennik N", an independent newspaper supported, among others, by online grassroots fundraising.
In response to Babis' involvement in the media, regular demonstrations organised by activists from the Million Moments for Democracy movement take place in the Czech Republic. The largest one so far has gathered nearly a quarter of a million protesters demanding his removal from office.
The Czechs have less and less confidence in the private media, and consider public television and radio the most reliable, since politicians do not have much influence over it so far. In this respect, it is an exceptional situation compared to the Visegrad Group countries, where the public media are almost entirely subordinated to the rulers.
It speaks poorly of Kaczyński if he does not know the reality behind the transformation of the Czech media sector over the last years. It would be even worse if he is aware of it and wants to ensure that editorial offices in Poland follow the same path.
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