No other name resonates as strongly in the Czech media market at the moment as that of Andrej Babiš, the second richest citizen in Czech Republic. In June Babiš bought one of the largest domestic media groups in the country, MAFRA. The acquisition, combined with his political connections and wide ranging business interests, has sparked a lively public debate on whether Czech journalism is undergoing “Berlusconization”.
By buying MAFRA, Babiš gained an audience of 1.75 million, according to Media research project. The group includes newspapers Mlada fronta Dnes, Lidové noviny, the free newspaper Metro and their online supplements (including iDnes.cz the second largest serious news portal in the country) in addition to two radio stations, Radio Express and Classic, and the music television channel Ocko.
Media vs. political activity
Babiš first media buy was of the regional free weekly newspaper Metro, which now has 1 million readers a month.
He said MAFRA will fit in well with his other media groups. “The media group MAFRA is considered a very strong player in the Czech media market, especially in the area of serious journalism. The acquisition will start a series of synergies and allow us to look for other cost savings, for example in the functioning of our weekly newspaper 5plus2,” he said.
In business terms, the deal looks perfectly sensible. But Andrej Babiš is also the founder of the political movement Yes 2011, a populist political party taps into Czech dissatisfaction with the towards the current political establishment. In addition, the media could be an important factor in the upcoming 2014 elections.
The Czech media has been willing to take on politicians. In March 2011, when recordings of young politician Kristýna Kočí’s were published on a server Týden.cz, which triggered serious internal dissent within the coalition party Věci Veřejné.
How Babiš attacked the independence of journalists
Babiš, who owns the agricultural, food, and chemical holding Agrofert, assured the public in a statement that he would not in any way interfere with the work and independence of the journalists working for his media outlets. But a few days later, Babiš asked a political reporter from the newspaper Lidové noviny why no article had been published about a Yes 2011 political conference he attended.
After the incident was made public, Babiš personally apologized to the paper’s editors and proposed a new code of conduct. The well-known and respected journalist and commentator Karel Hvíždala was asked to draw up guidelines which are meant to clearly define the relationship between the new owner and his journalists.
The Czech Office for Competition Protection has also recently begun a standard investigation into Babiš acquisition.
Back in Czech hands, so why aren’t we happy?
The sale of the publishing house MAFRA is not the only change to the Czech media market in recent months. In late April the industrial magnate Zdeněk Bakala bought the online company Centrum Holdings, which owns the news portal Aktuálně.cz. Babiš bought MAFRA from the German company Rheinisch-Bergische Verlagsgesellschaft.
In both cases, a major Czech media company that had passed into foreign ownership is now back in Czech hands.
However, few people are worried about Bakala’s acquisition. While he financially supported the current government coalition (ODS, TOP 09 and Věci Veřejné) in the country’s most recent election, he himself has yet to show any political ambitions.
By contrast, Babiš’ became interested in media ownership when he first started his political movement Yes 2011. Babiš publically insists he expects no political benefits from owning media companies, saying: “I certainly don’t want to be a Czech Berlusconi. I’d be crazy if I wanted to influence the media. It would certainly spread among the journalists, which would be the end of me.“
One thing is certain. 2013 is the year Babiš’ builds up his media empire. As well as MAFRA, Babiš’ also bought the publishing house Ecopress, which publishes the newspaper Hospodárské noviny in his native Slovakia (he has dual citizenship).
Just how he uses his new businesses remains to be seen.
This article was translated from the original Czech Politicky aktivní miliardář Babiš se stal mediálním magnátem
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons