This piece is published in collaboration with HlidaciPes as part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe. Read more.

After a coalition of the Czech Republic’s traditional parties won the 2021 election, ousting oligarch Andrej Babiš, there was hope for widespread media reform in the country – but so far those hopes have largely remained just that rather than becoming reality.

When Reporters Without Borders published their well-established press freedom ranking this year, it brought about mixed reactions in the Czech Republic. Besides elation over the country’s ascension by as many as twenty notches from last year, there was a question nagging – what has changed in a year for the Czech Republic to take 20th place, rather than 40th?

A slump of other countries is one reason, which means the Czech ranking rose not because of concrete improvements in its own media freedom but because the situation in other countries worsened. This includes, for example, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, or Slovenia, which have all dropped in the ranking. For instance, Slovenia dropped roughly as sharply as the Czech Republic rose. But this year’s index does not reflect the results of the election in April in Slovenia, lost by the incumbent prime minister, Janez Janša, associated with attacks on independent media in the country. It is therefore likely next year will see distinct shifts in the RSF index again.

In the Czech Republic, to put it plainly, apart from the name of the prime minister, the situation is largely the same. Most big private media remain parked in the stables of the richest oligarchs and public media, although of fine quality, are as vulnerable to political pressures as before.

The role of Babiš

It is true that with Andrej Babiš and the government of his ANO movement propped up by communists (KSČM) and xenophobic populists (SPD) now gone, the strongest pressure on the Czech media scene – Babiš himself – has disappeared. Being one of the top businessmen in the country and a billionaire, the prime minister could exert his clout on roughly a third of domestic media that are part of his business empire.

Babiš says he has no influence on his “former firms” (including media) because he transferred them to trust funds to avoid conflicts of interest. It is a fact, however, that as recently as last autumn, a few days before the election, lifestyle magazines from his Mafra publishing house disseminated articles describing Babiš as a “family man” who loves tenderloin in cream sauce (the Czech national meal) and suffers because politics robs him of time for his loved ones – a demonstration of how these media continued to support the oligarch.

At the same time, Babiš – still as prime minister – also criticized public Czech Television, saying they made the government’s work harder and divided the society during the Covid-19 pandemic. These attacks have also ceased. Babiš is now “just” the head of the most powerful opposition party and, logically, pushes less against the media and more against the current government coalition.

Coalition promises and public media

Before the coalition came into office, they promised to strengthen the independence of public media by changing laws so that they would be better poised to resist any “next Babišes”. But then came high inflation, the war in Ukraine, and day-to-day political reality.

Preparation of amendments to the laws on Czech Television and Czech Radio has stalled.

A version championed by the Ministry of Culture was rejected even by legislative advisors to the government, due to doubts over its compliance with the constitution. The bone of contention was whether it is acceptable to remove all members of the supervisory bodies (The Council of the Czech Television and The Council of the Czech Radio) and elect them all afresh. The councils are currently occupied mostly by people appointed by the previous majority in the Chamber of Deputies (ANO-SPD-KSČM), some of whom took openly critical or outright hostile stands towards public media in the past.

When a new version of the amendment bill will be on the table is unclear; nevertheless, the public media reform, including an arrangement of their long-term financing, is being delayed. The coalition repeatedly failed to agree on electing several councillors, with seats in the media councils remaining vacant for months.

How to measure media freedom?

Reporters Without Borders also changed their methodology last year, factoring in online media freedom more than before. This helped Hungary move up by seven notches in the ranking, even though media freedom in the country has been declining for a long time because of the encroachment by Viktor Orbán’s government on the media environment. If anything, there was no improvement there last year. The online landscape is thus the last free media space in Hungary after the Hungarian government and its business cronies took almost total control over radio and television broadcasting and the printed media, including regional press.

Back to the Czech Republic, though. Reporters Without Borders now evaluate each country with five criteria. The Czech Republic’s best performance was in the indicator of journalists’ safety. “If we rated the Czech Republic solely by it, it would be 17th,” says Pavol Szalai, head of the EU/Balkans Desk at RSF.

By contrast, the economic context of the media ranks worst, with no changes in the Czech Republic – there’s the concentration of media ownership among big business actors and financial fragility of smaller, independent media projects focusing on investigative and analytic journalism.

Fragility also characterizes another indicator, the political context in which Czech journalists work.

Even though government attacks against the media ceased as Babiš left, nothing has changed in the hostile attitude that President Miloš Zeman and his circle have had towards journalists for a long time. This year, Zeman’s chancellor Vratislav Mynář, a senior public servant, implicitly accused journalists of being behind the fire in his countryside log cabin because they allegedly incited hatred towards the chancellor.

“All of them jeopardized the lives of my children and my family,” Mynář blamed some of the media that often report on his affairs. Moreover, to publicize these accusations, he used – not for the first time – the official website of the office of the president. He has presented no evidence of the journalists’ blame, though.

Shortly afterwards, there was another similar incident when chancellor Mynář published an open letter to the director of public Czech Radio on the presidential website. He called for rectification of what he called “disinformation” that Czech Radio’s news site published about secret documents shredded in the presidential office and Mynář’s journey to Qatar. Mynář had been referring to media stories about his own missteps as “disinformation” for a long time and, in this case, the radio came to their journalists’ defence explicitly and quickly. Nevertheless, the head of the public radio, René Zavoral, has been striving to maintain good relations with President Zeman for a long time and chancellor Mynář’s wife, a presenter and a host, got her own show on the radio two years ago.

To add context, Zeman was, until this year’s invasion to Ukraine, one of major allies of Vladimir Putin’s Russia regime in the Czech Republic. After the war broke out, he finally condemned Putin’s aggression. Until this year, however, the Kremlin had its advocates even in media councils overseeing public media.

As recently as this February, just one day before Russia invaded Ukraine, deputy chairman of the Council of the Czech Radio, Tomáš Kňourek, unsuccessfully strived to push through a resolution criticising the radio for “monotonous and non-pluralist” views of Kremlin’s politics in response to a complaint from a listener. A year ago, he asked during the council’s session why the Ukrainian ambassador could be so often heard on the public radio and whether the Russian ambassador had been invited to the studio as well. The reply from heads of the radio news service was, by the way, that the Russian ambassador had been invited repeatedly but had never come.

This all goes to show that the Czech media reality has not seen significant changes despite the hopes that came with last year’s election result. The same people continue sitting in the media councils, the same president still has less than a year in office at the Prague Castle, and media owners remain the same. Going forward, both the councils and the president will change, but for the moment, concrete examples of positive change in the area of Czech press freedom are few.