The Role of Public Media in CE Is Very Unstable

A global pandemic, the war in Ukraine, or rising inflation across Europe. More than ever, the crises of recent years have shown once again how important the role of a free media is in any healthy democratic society. At the same time, we often have to fight long-term battles to preserve their independence, commented on the current situation Petr Dvořák, Czech Television CEO, at the event The Future of a Free Press in Central and Eastern Europe, which was held by Aspen Institute CE and Aspen Digital.

We in the Czech Republic do not need a great imagination to imagine a world in which there are no free media. Up until 1989 we lived in such a situation for 40 years. And the truth is that we have seen hints of this state of affairs return from time to time, like other countries in the former Eastern Bloc. 

The causes of such developments are complicated and complex. They are, on the one hand, a global phenomenon that has led to the erosion of the values that we have accepted for decades. But, on the other hand, they are also purely local, in the case of the Czech Republic quite specific and personalized.

How the Czech Republic Lost its Press Freedom in Just Five Years

I would like to take you through a short story of how the Czech Republic has fallen from the 13 place in the global World Press Freedom Index to number 40 in just five years. I believe that it will be a story to learn from. 

For a long time after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the media in the Czech Republic belonged to various large foreign media companies.

Czech businessmen, however, soon discovered that while owning media might not be too interesting from a business perspective, it made sense from the influence perspective. Andrej Babiš, businessman, politician and even chairman of a strong populist party, the Finance Minister and later also the Prime Minister, was one of those who bought a large media house in 2013. His entry into the media market resulted in the concentration of political, business and media power in the hands of one single person. That same moment, the public service media became his direct competitor and the target of the critical political rhetoric of Babiš and his party members.

I remember various things from that time. I remember the moments when he publicly attacked our journalists calling them “corrupt trash”, when he refused to give them information, when he refused to appear on our programs. I remember pressure in the form of legislative proposals to decrease or even abolish license fees. I remember lying anonymous pamphlets, so-called ‘audits’, spread in the Czech Parliament accusing Czech TV and myself of distorting information, non-transparent management or even criminal offenses.

At the same time, criticizing Czech TV became part of the political campaign of Czech President Miloš Zeman. Undermining trust in Czech TV and, in contrast, strengthening the unregulated, more marginal and sometimes even disinformation media, was an important part of his agenda. And on top of that you can add far-right parties and politicians for whom challenging the public media will always be their agenda.

As a result of this multilateral pressure on Czech TV and Czech Radio, the Czech Republic fell 27 places on the World Press Freedom index between 2014 and 2019.

However, the pressure on Czech TV continued in the following years. After the public criticism of Czech TV, its news coverage and its management from the country’s highest constitutional officials did not work, after tens of thousands, sometimes even hundreds of thousands of people protested in the squares in favor of Czech TV, after laws leading to the economic starvation of the Public Service Media were not passed by Parliament, the pressure took the form of staffing media councils.

Politics Plays a Crucial Role in Supporting Public Media

Media councils have many competences in the Czech Republic. The newly elected members were tasked with destabilizing Czech TV, influencing its decision-making and especially its news and public affairs coverage, and ideally also changing its management, including the Director General, followed by the dismissal of the Editor-in-Chief and several well-known journalists. Frankly, it was an extremely difficult period.

It was a period when I seriously wondered whether I had the strength to fight such pressure any longer.

But we made it, thanks also to the support of many international institutions, including EBU, Council of Europe, international unions of journalists and many others. Thanks a lot for that support. In 2021, the Czech Republic still ranked number 40 on the World Press Freedom Index. This year it jumped back to number 20. What happened?

There was a democratic election. It was won by a different political coalition, which, in contrast, regards the stability of the media, including the public service media, as its goal. The current government and current ruling coalition came with a proposal to include the Senate in the selection of media council members, and we are negotiating a change of our financing to be stable, predictable and independent from political pressures. That’s good news. But the bad news is how unstable the media situation in the center of Europe can be.

Petr Dvořák

is a Czech manager and since 2011 the CEO of Czech Television. Since 2014, he has been a member of the board of the EBU (European Broadcasting Union). From January 1, 2021, Dvořák began his two-year mandate as vice president of the EBU, to which role he was elected by an absolute majority of the general assembly. In the years 2003–2010, he worked as the general director of TV Nova.

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