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. That station, owned by mogul Jaromír Soukup, goes so far as to broadcast a weekly talk show with Zeman hosted by Soukup himself.
The government body tasked with monitoring broadcast media licensing has found that TV Barrandov’s programming disproportionately favours Zeman. Though just 12 percent of Czechs report consulting Barrandov for news at least once per week, the channel’s entertainment content — a mix of films, detective shows and comedies dating from the post-1968 period of communist repression and censorship known as “Normalisation” — is emblematic of a target demographic of older, nostalgic viewers that also form Zeman’s voting base. In fact, that business model has proved so successful that the much larger TV Prima, which 26 percent of Czechs consult at least once per week for news, has begun adapting its programming in a similar way.
“Both these TV stations are speaking directly to Zeman’s core [voters], who are usually less educated, more rural,” Štětka said. “These are essentially the losers of the transformation process.”
In step with Zeman’s views, TV Prima has also played an active role in stoking anti-immigrant fears. The station is majority owned by Zeman-ally Ivan Zach and notable for a 2016 scandal in which leaked audio recordings (taken in 2015) revealed news editors ordering journalists to report only negative news about refugees. Robert Břešťan, editor-in-chief of the investigative web site Hlídací pes (“Watchdog”), which broke the story, called the incident “a clear attempt to manipulate public opinion”. In the fallout — and in a perpetuation of the trend toward local ownership — TV Prima’s then half-owner, the Swedish media house MTG, sold its stake. Since Zach and a group of murky holding companies bought up MTG’s former shares, the station has doubled down on its pro-Zeman line.
While television remains the country’s most influential media, Zeman’s campaign also harnesses allies in the online sphere, in particular via the influential alternative news site Parlamentní listy. Blending sensationalism, fake news and outlandish opinions in a formula similar to Breitbart News in the United States, Parlamentní listy provides notably friendly coverage of Zeman. In a relationship that both helps legitimise the site and indicates its strategic value in Zeman’s public relations strategy, it often receives information from Prague Castle, the presidential seat, before mainstream sources.
Even as conspiracy sites now seem a mainstay of political discourse, and as online news gains traction in a fractured media landscape, Parlamentní listy stands out. A number of studies have noted the striking similarities between news narratives trending on Parlamentní listy and sites with known ties to Russian intelligence services. With 800,000 monthly readers in a country of 10.5 million, Parlamentní listy has major influence.
“I don’t know of any other alternative site in Europe that plays such a central role in national politics,” Štětka said.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Štětka’s research found that the average Czech consumer of alternative online news is actually older than consumers of mainstream sources — 51 years of age as compared to 46. In the former genre, Parlamentní listy accounts for 90 percent of the total, he said. This means the site courts a demographic that overlaps with TV Barrandov and TV Prima for Zeman, with “essentially 100 percent” of regular Parlamentní listy readers likely Zeman supporters, Štětka added.
All told, the fragmented media scene means that Czech voters are increasingly siloed off from one another. Many likely Zeman voters receive a steady diet of information that portrays the outside world as hostile and dangerous – be that due to terrorism, refugees or foreign media that is portrayed as attacking the president.
Amid polling that puts Zeman in a virtual tie with scientist Jiří Drahoš in a second round runoff January 26 to 27 (not to mention other potential challengers), the president may be left hoping that his friends in the press push him over the top.