The partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today express our serious concern over the latest efforts by the ruling ANO party and its allies to further politicise the oversight body of the Czech public broadcaster.
We are worried that the slow-motion yet obvious efforts to stack the Council of the Czech TV (ČT Council) are ultimately aimed at the erosion of the public television’s independence and politically-motivated realignment of its news and opinion programming.
Our organisations, which have decades of combined experience monitoring and defending press and media freedom across Europe, are also alarmed by the apparent attempt by members of the ČT Council to find grounds to dismiss the broadcaster’s director general ahead of tightly contested parliamentary elections in October.
These concerns were renewed on 18 March, when during its selection process for the next ČT Council election, the Electoral Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, which is dominated by the ANO party led by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, again shortlisted several candidates who appear to have been chosen for their political loyalties or long-standing criticism of the broadcaster, rather than their expertise or independence.
This fear is reinforced by allegations that seven of the twelve organisations who nominated candidates for the election have allegedly violated Czech law as they have not published information about their finances in the official public register.
It now appears likely that when MPs vote in April to elect four candidates to sit on the ČT Council, the ANO and its allies in the governing coalition will again use their parliamentary majority to stack the 15-member body with their preferred candidates. If so, it would mirror a similar election last year which saw individuals with clear links to political groups selected.
After that election, our organisations raised concerns about the problematic pre-selection process and warned that such an overt politicisation of the nominally independent body has resulted in a serious departure from the system of appointments that aims to ensure a balance of opinions. We maintain that the ČT Council can no longer be considered impartial, as it is legally mandated under Czech law.
Since then, the situation has only become more concerning. In November 2020, the newly elected ČT Council voted to dismiss all five members of its own Supervisory Board without justification, leading to protests outside the headquarters of Czech Television and the resignation of the ČT Council chairman.
In March, the Council also initiated an open confrontation with the television’s management and has faced allegations that certain members are trying to dismiss the current director general, Petr Dvořák. An attempt by the anti-Dvořák faction within the body to dismiss him on dubious conflict of interest grounds was rightly rejected by a majority in the Council last week.
Pressure nonetheless continues. We are aware that the director general has long been under fire from certain political forces and previously faced smears in pro-government media over his leadership of the broadcaster, which has long been unfairly tarred as biased and unbalanced. We also note that during the previous ČT Council election in May 2020, ANO urged MPs not to vote for candidates supportive of Dvořák. In another worrying sign, some of the recently shortlisted candidates have spoken openly about their willingness to dismiss him and remove other editors and journalists.
Taken together, our organisations believe that at best, these developments are a sign that members of the ČT Council are now looking for any excuse to dial up the pressure on the director general and tame the broadcaster on ideological grounds. At worst, however, we find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the real aim is to fill the ČT Council with enough figures who are critical of Dvořák to ensure that there is a majority to vote to dismiss him when the opportunity arises.
If a dismissal on flimsy grounds were to take place, it is hard to imagine it would not be followed by the installation of a figure who would oversee changes to the broadcaster’s news programming, ultimately with the aim of muzzling criticism and shoring up support ahead of October’s parliamentary election. This kind of brazen meddling in public service media would be something more akin to experiences in other countries such as Poland and Hungary, where public TV and radio have been transformed into propaganda outlets of the ruling parties. The capture of public broadcasters always starts with political control of their oversight bodies.
It is crucial therefore that the Czech public television remains a model for public broadcasting in the region and that the bodies that oversee it remain free of political interference. Viewers and voters must continue to have access to impartial, unbiased and independent information, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vital here is the requirement of all political parties to view the public broadcaster as a necessary and valued public watchdog that serves a central role in the country’s democracy, as opposed to a political tool of state communication to be instrumentalised ahead of elections.
In the coming weeks, our organisations will continue to closely scrutinise the work of the ČT Council, its undue pressure on its director general, and the selection of its new members. MPs selecting the new members next month should fulfil their legal obligations to the electorate to guarantee the board’s political neutrality that selects candidates based on professionalism over politics.
Czech public television is rightly viewed as one of the central pillars of the country’s democracy. It would be highly regrettable if the protests in 2000 which were successful in defending the broadcaster’s institutional and editorial independence were undone in broad daylight in the name of short-term political goals.
European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
International Press Institute (IPI)
This statement has been written by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries. This project provides legal and practical support, public advocacy and information to protect journalists and media workers.