Petr Kellner, the richest person in the Czech Republic, has become the owner of the influential TV station Nova. His acquisition has expanded the group of the richest Czechs who over the last decade have become the owners of almost all the country’s major media companies.
Among this list are the current Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and businessmen Daniel Křetínský, Marek Dospiva and Zdeněk Bakala. Now the richest of all has joined. Kellner’s investment group PPF has recently become the owner of Central European Media Enterprises (CME), which owns 30 television stations across the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia.
Should we be concerned about the editorial independence of Nova and other CME televisions? In response to a recent letter by IPI and other press freedom groups, the CEOs of CME stressedtheir commitment to the values of media freedom and pluralism. However concerns linger – and a glance at the wider context of Czech media ownership reveals why.
Troubled Czech Media Ownership
After the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and its split in 1993, for two decades mostly foreign media entrepreneurs were owners of media organizations in the Czech Republic. They understood the needs of the media well and knew that editorial independence was a key condition of prosperous media, and therefore protected it.
Our current media owners are different in one key trait: media is not their main business. Many also involved in finance or industry or agriculture. News organizations usually do not even make up even a substantial part of their turnover. This raises the question: if the economic incentive was not significant then why did they buy media?
For the prime minister, Andrej Babiš, the motivation was clear. When he decided to enter politics nearly ten years ago, he realized that success depended on his media image. In 2013, his company purchased MAFRA, the publisher of two of the biggest and the most influential Czech newspapers, Lidové noviny and Mladá fronta DNES. Babiš justified the purchase by saying that he wanted to ensure that the newspapers finally wrote the truth.
However, after the acquisitions, the content of these newspapers began shifting after changes in management and editorial teams. With favourable coverage, public perception of Babiš slowly switched from a controversial entrepreneur to a respected politician. In December 2017, his ANO 2011 party won the election and became head of the government. Though he remains the subject of criticism from the European Union, his image in his media is completely different.
Other Ownership Issues
But what about other owners? When the joint Czech-Slovak group Penta started thinking about buying media in the Czech Republic, according to its Czech partner Marek Dospiva, the intention was to have the media as a counterweight to Babiš’s group. In other words, to keep plurality in the market. This was an argument that convinced me in 2015 to become the CEO of this publishing house to help transform it and improve it.
It soon became clear, however, that the owners did not live up to their original ideas. Not only did they not want to support independent journalism, but they also complained when the media criticized the prime minister. In the end, the editors of the most critical weekly couldn’t stand the pressure, refused to accept it and left. When in 2017 elections Babiš defeated the other parties with a big majority, I had to leave as well. But not only that. Although the newspaper editorial office asked me to write regular features, after a few weeks they rejected my column, stating that cooperation with me had ended.
Why did this happen? You cannot be a big businessman in a small country without a good relationship with the government. Penta, whose core business is real estate, knows critical coverage of Babiš, would negatively affect their business. So even if Penta’s owners might want to see Babiš’s political defeat, their immediate financial interests win out when it comes to the editorial stance of their media.
There are other cases where the influence of owners is more ambiguous. Daniel Křetínský, unlike Babiš, invested in Czech tabloid media. The content of Křetínský’s Czech media is not politically neutral, but there are both articles supportive of the current administration and others critical of it. In this case, it is not clear to what extent Křetínský interferes with editorial independence, if at all. It is worth noting that Křetínský’s media business differs from the other richest Czechs as it does not focus on the Czech market only, as evidence by his recent acquisition of a stake in the iconic French daily Le Monde.
Kellner’s PPF Group have taken ownership of Central European Media Enterprises (CME)
New media owner: Petr Kellner
So what kind of owner will Petr Kellner be compared to the current media tycoons? One area of concern here are his ties to China. His PPF group has large financial investments in the country and it is known that the success of doing business in this country requires having good relations with the Chinese Communist Party.
How will his new television station independently report on the business with Chinese IT companies suspected of computer espionage? How will it independently inform about the activities of the President of the Czech Republic, who is publicly involved in the support of Chinese business and Chinese interests?
Prime Minister Babiš’s business depends on China because it has big loans in Chinese banks. But Kellner is in a different position than other entrepreneurs in the country: he is the only one who is financially stronger than Babiš. Significantly stronger. Kellner also emphasized that his entry into the television business had no political reason. Some time ago, he became the owner of the largest telecommunications company, the former state-owned Český telecom. And the connection of wires and content makes sense if the purchase of CME really is about investment in media itself.
In the CME television group, which Kellner bought, the Czech television Nova and the Slovak Markíza make up almost half of the operating profit. The other half is made up of the remaining television stations in Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia. There may also be synergies here, as Kellner’s PPF group recently bought mobile operators in the Balkans as well as in Hungary from Telenor of Norway.
It’s also worth pointing out that PPF’s board of directors for media includes an extraordinary figure in Vladimír Mlynář, a former dissident during the communist era and signer of the famous Charter 77 manifesto. He co-founded an independent newspaper and became its editor when the communist regime ended. So Kellner has at least one face in his team that should help guarantee that his media ownership will not be abused.
The answer to the questions posed at the beginning of this piece is therefore: that there is indeed cause of concern, because the ownership of an entrepreneur so financially dependent on a number of influences and relationships is a threat to the independence of the media. It is necessary to follow Nova’s news program and how it will develop and change. At the same time, we should give the new owner a chance to prove his statement that his entry into the media business is really driven by an interest in this business only.
Opinion by Michal Klíma, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Czech National Committee of IPI
October 30, 2020