This piece is published in collaboration with HlidaciPes as part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe. Read more.
Independent media are the fourth pillar of democracy; without them, the system will collapse sooner or later. And this means they must be truly free. In the Czech Republic, the role of the media is fundamentally distorted, which is why the Association of Online Publishers (Asociace online vydavatelů) was established in May 2021 to help change the grim reality.
World Press Freedom Day on May 3 was chosen as the date to launch the association, which has the mission of advancing the interests of small and medium publishers in a world of oligarchized media.
Challenges: Babiš, Zeman, the Kremlin, Beijing…
Czech media have been under a concentrated attack since June 2013 when then-Prime Minister Andrej Babiš announced he was buying Mafra, a major publishing house, with outlets such as the popular news website iDnes.cz and daily newspaper Mladá fronta Dnes.
The Czech media scene has been split up among the most powerful financial groups in the country. A news website, a daily newspaper or television network merely supplements their main business, whether that is in loans, energy, pharmacies, hospitals, or telecommunications. The owners are not interested in freedom of speech, objective reporting, fair business or political competition.
The most well-known oligarch in the Czech Republic is former prime minister and current front-runner in the January 2023 presidential election, Andrej Babiš. Mafra, the publishing house he controls, reaches about 4.5 million people per day, according to Forbes. That’s more than half of the adult Czech population.
The print media, websites, and radio stations of Czech Media Invest, controlled by entrepreneurs Daniel Křetínský (owner of Central Europe’s largest energy group) and Patrik Tkáč, reach even more people every day at five million – a larger audience than public broadcaster Czech Television.
Roughly the same number of Czech men and women watch television channels or visit websites owned by the most powerful Czech financial group, PPF. In fact, PPF, via CME Group, broadcasts in six Central and Eastern European countries.
The list of oligarch-owned Czech media companies concludes with the Penta investment group, which controls a network of regional daily newspapers, reaching 3.2 million people every day.
In recent years, this detrimental trend towards oligarchization has been accompanied by assaults on the independence of the public television, radio, and press agency.
These charges have been led by figures associated with Czech populists, the Russian and Chinese embassies, and even current president Miloš Zeman.
Disinformation platforms that amplify the voices of those figures and populists and, often with money from foreign totalitarians, deny or at least relativize even obvious facts, are another story deserving of close scrutiny.
Independent media claim their rights
More than a year ago, an endeavour by three Czech independent publishers reacted to this crisis.
The Institute of Independent Journalism (Ústav nezávislé žurnalistiky), which publishes HlídacíPes.org, is one of the three founders of the Association of Online Publishers (represented by the author of this article). The other two founding members are the publishers of Drbna.cz, a network of regional websites, and Reportér Magazine.
“The Association of Online Publishers originated from the long-standing demand from other publishers who felt they were lacking an entity that would efficiently lobby on their behalf. We decided we would change this, and take care of ourselves in this matter,” explains Libor Matoušek, founder of the regional media network Drbna.cz and chairman of the board in the Association of Online Publishers.
“At its inception, the association transcended the interests of its members. Free media are the fourth pillar of democracy; without them, the system gradually breaks down. And because they play a key role in the drama called free society, they must be free in earnest. We established the association because we believe media – publishers and journalists alike – have responsibility for this country and, more broadly, for the world we live in. We find their role, at least in our country, distorted, even ridiculed. We want and should strive to change this,” says HlídacíPes.org editor-in-chief Robert Břešťan.
The founders agreed on this agenda:
- Lobbying, especially at the level of the EU and national public bodies
- Encouraging the creation of a media oversight body
- Appealing to journalism ethics
- Engaging in the legislative process and potential market regulation
- Building relationships with technological content distributors
- Producing expert output
The intention to establish a professional association appealed even to publishers of predominantly print media.
One of the founding members is Robert Čásenský of Reportér Magazine, who says: “Our long-term aim is to do quality and independent journalism that is not affected by an unhealthy, oligarchic environment. Many of us sprang up as grassroots projects because we wanted to do our work as best as we could and in our own way. Of course, we want to grow and, to that end, we need a level playing field on the media market. That is what we are going to strive for with the new association.”
From the very beginning, the Association of Online Publishers has been open to new members.
In order to join, these membership requirements need to be met: no person in any statutory body of any member of the association should be member of a political party, and no member of the association should be owned by or engage in an executive position in a PR or communications agency. By taking up membership in the association, members declare that they produce more than 50 per cent of their authored content and publish no disinformation or fake news.
One year after its foundation, the Association advocates for the interests of 17 publishers whose websites are visited by a total of more than seven million people a month.
Dogfight for billions
As the number of member publishers grows, the influence of the Association of Online Publishers naturally grows stronger, efficiently competing with the Publishers Union (Unie vydavatelů). Large media companies came together in the union, advocating primarily for their own interests, which means that people representing Czech oligarchs – Andrej Babiš, Daniel Křetínský, and Marek Dospiva of Penta Group – rule the roost in the Publishers Union.
Large traditional publishers have now sensed an opportunity in the upcoming new legal regulation of copyright, set to introduce a ‘collective copyright administrator’ to manage redistribution of funds from tech giants. The estimated yearly sum ranges from one to two billion Czech koruna, depending on the final legal arrangement.
A harsh lobbying fight has been underway to see whether the oligarchized media companies will funnel the money in their owners’ pockets or whether it will help provide much-needed support for the efforts of independent media projects.
Had they not joined forces, independent media would have been on the back foot. Now, they can – and do – act as an equal partner of large media companies.
This piece is part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe in collaboration with leading independent media in the region. Any viewpoints expressed in these articles do not necessarily represent the views of IPI. Read more.