International Press Institute: Critical of journalists, Czech President Zeman relies on media allies

January 4, 2017

When Miloš Zeman brandished a gun marked “For Journalists” at a press conference in October, it was just the latest in a long line of hostile messages directed at the press. But contrary to the rhetoric, and the international headlines it is designed to generate — in another memorable incident Zeman joked with Vladimir Putin that the two should “liquidate” reporters — the Czech president in fact relies on a network of media allies to drum up and maintain domestic political support.

With re-election in the country’s upcoming presidential vote still in doubt, that contradiction forms an important part of Zeman’s campaign strategy. The president’s outlandish comments are seen to make straw men enemies of foreign media even as loyalist local outlets stoke the passions of his base.

“A lot of media are lining up as anti-Zeman, but others are taking his side, so we are seeing a polarisation of the media scene,” Václav Štětka, a media studies professor at Loughborough University in the UK, said in an interview with the International Press Institute (IPI).

That increased divide comes amid rapid transformation of Central and Eastern European (CEE) media ownership. Much like elsewhere in the region, control of Czech media has largely shifted from the hands of foreign — especially German — multinationals to powerful local businesspeople. Andrej Babiš, the billionaire prime minister who owns two influential daily newspapers, is the most egregious example but hardly an exception. The liberal publishing house Economia is owned by coal mogul Zdeněk Bakala, the real estate firm Penta owns the Deník chain of regional dailies, and the largest circulation newspaper, the tabloid Blesk, is owned by the investment firm J&T and Daniel Křetínský, a key player in regional energy infrastructure. In a sign that the trend is not abating, the country’s most popular television channel, TV Nova, is now for sale by Time Warner as part of a bundle of CEE properties. The resulting landscape makes much of the commercial media in the Czech Republic a lever of power or bargaining chip in political conflict rather than a traditional public watchdog.

Zeman’s selective relationship with the news media is a case in point. While shunning media he associates with the liberal establishment, including key discussion programmes on public service broadcasters, Zeman regularly holds court on friendlier outlets such as TV Barrandov...