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Politicians And Media Owners Trade Shoes, No Perfect Fit

Elections bring out the best and worst in news media. The klieg light shines on all parties and their candidates. All is fair, except when itís not. Alternative media - otherwise known as fake news - relies not on gathering and reporting but rather on twists, turns and other distortion. Some voters are attracted to the noise, loudness prevailing. Others suffer the torment of ill-fitting shoes.

iron bootThe leading contender to be the next Czech prime minister is politician, billionaire and newspaper publisher Andrej Babis. He is the country’s second richest person, owning the huge agro-chemical conglomerate Agrofert. In 2011 he formed a populist political party - ANO, acronym for Akce nespokojenych obcanu (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens), and, conveniently, the Czech word for yes.

He also principally owns publisher Mafra - daily national newspapers Mladá fronta Dnes (MF Dnes) and Lidove Noviny, weekly Metro, all with related online portals - and top rated national radio channel Radio Impuls and Prague station RockZone through the Londa subsidiary of Mafra. Separately, cable/satellite music channel Ocko TV is a Mafra subsidiary. Mafra was acquired in 2013, Londa in 2014. Mr. Babis has been compared to Donald Trump (Politico - October 28, 2015) and Silvio Berlusconi (Financial Times - May 24, 2017) as much for his populist views as talent for creating and holding name recognition. Mr. Babis also stars in the short-format video interview feature Babis Cafe (Babisova kavárna), available on Facebook, launched last year.

Serving as finance minister and deputy prime minister until this past spring, Mr. Babis was caught in a recording exerting pressure on a newspaper reporter to disparage competing politicians. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka forced Mr. Babis to resign. The Czech parliament then passed a law on conflicts of interest by politicians that effectively required Mr. Babis place his media holdings in a trust.

The episode with Mr. Babis and the reporter, working for daily newspaper MF Dnes, which he owns, drew in, briefly, the European Parliament’s attention. "These businessmen didn't suddenly become impassioned with journalism and the free press,” said RSF representative Julie Majerczak to a committee of MEPs, quoted by EU Observer (May 31), “but they told themselves that by buying up the media they could extend their sphere of influence, and the influence of their friends.”

Seizing the opportunity to criticize institutional Brussels, a major theme of his political campaign, Mr. Babis suggested the European Parliament butt-out. "The European Parliament, in my opinion, should only comment on the situation in a Member State when its government knowingly violates the rules, but that is not happening in our country,” he argued, quoted by tyden.cz (May 30). “Why is the focus still on the Mafra Group? I think the answer is obvious.”

The current scandal dubbed Stork’s Nest (Capi hnizdo in Czech) is about fraudulent use of EU funds for a hotel and recreation complex developed by an Agrofert subsidiary. The European Commission, through DG Communication Networks, Content and Technology (CNECT) Media and Data director Giuseppe Abbamonte, said the “specific problem” isn’t a big deal. Mr. Babis remains a member of the Czech Chamber of Deputies as parliamentary colleagues debate stripping him of immunity.

A recent opinion poll (Median, August 27) showed support for ANO at 26.5%, followed by the Social Democratic Party (CSSD) at 14.5%, the Communist Party (KSCM) at 13% and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) at 10%. There are at least a dozen other parties looking to place candidates in the Czech Parliament in the October 20th and 21st elections.

The Election Law requires public broadcasters to allot 14 free hours to major political parties, equally divided, for campaign-related pitches. The threshold for inclusion is about 5% popular support. Public broadcasters review the announcements a priori for hate speech. Paid political announcements are not allowed on public or privately-owned radio and TV channels. Broadcasters are required to provide equal access to all candidates.

The Radio and Television Broadcasting Operation Act (2001) requires objective and balanced reporting on public and privately-owned radio and TV outlets. Laws for public broadcasters Czech Television and Czech Radio are more stringent. Favoring any political party or movement is explicitly banned. Under the Print Act, newspapers and magazines have few election campaign restrictions and can benefit from paid political advertising. The print media are required to offer right of reply. Publication of opinion polls is prohibited for three days before election days as well as election days before the polls close, otherwise there is no “quiet period.”

In the run-up to the Czech parliamentary elections the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe (OSCE) published (August 2) a needs assessment report for election monitoring, also covering the 2018 presidential elections. The OSCE will be monitoring national broadcast media through this parliamentary election cycle, but maybe not for the January 2018 presidential election. The OSCE team “positively assessed media freedom and access to media” while raising concerns “over potential unprofessional behavior of some commercial media owned by influential business people.” The influence of online media raised concerns “due to the lack of legal regulations of this media segment.”

As Czech newspaper publishers suffered from rapidly falling revenues - advertising, certainly, but also subscription and kiosk sales - consolidation struck. Writers, editors and photographers shed by downsizing and closures were drawn to the new bright light of online media. So, too, were those seeking platforms for different points of view.

The most notorious, arguably, is the online portal Parlamentni listy. A study of “disinformation” platforms in the Czech Republic and Slovakia by the Open Society Fund (OSF - August 22) estimates it is making roughly €1.2 million from ad sales, the most of all similar websites. The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017 referred to Parlamentni listy as “a Czech version of Breitbart News, infamous for disseminating hoaxes and hate speech.” It borrows extensively from Russian disinformation website Sputnik. The principal owner is billionaire gambling operator and politician Ivu Valenta, aligned with the right-wing Civic Democratic Party (ODC).

Appearing to follow the lead of Facebook and Google, The biggest Czech internet service provider (ISP), Seznam.cz, announced in early August it would take on fake news sites with a “code of ethics,” effectively cutting off the flow of digital advertising. “People have the right to information,” explained spokesperson Tána Lálová, quoted by Hospodárské noviny (August 8). "If a website does not meet any of the following conditions, it is not possible to display advertisements.” Online news portals will be excluded for “demonstrable lies, misinformation or conspiracy theories.”

Shortly thereafter Seznam executive director Michal Feis, quoted by info.cz (August 29), said something rather different. "The board did not know about the intention to tighten the advertising rules for news sites, and if they knew they would not have approved. The board of directors and the owner of the company do not want us to try to determine the objectivity and truthfulness of the news sites that are included in our advertising network.” At the end of last year the Czech Interior Ministry established a “fake news” checking web portal.

The Czech parliamentary election campaign is in full tilt. The center-left Social Democrats Party (CSSD) of current prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka is sticking with its basic message rather than seeking advantage at the missteps of Mr. Babis. “I’m sure it will enter the election cycle in some way, but it will not change the fundamentals of our message,” said election strategist Robert Zanony, quoted by news portal euro.cz (August 14). “My job is to keep the campaign to a clear, well-understood story that is good for what voters expect of us.”

The message and the media, he said, change with the times. “People change faster - shoes, phones, partners. This is reflected in the political system. Parties long in power are worn out and people want more new things, and quicker. The CSSD has voters who buy newspapers, look at the internet, go to the doctor, work and see the billboards.”


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