TV Nova, the most popular TV channel in the Czech Republic, is on the verge of becoming the property of the richest man in the country, the billionaire Petr Kellner. TV Nova’s parent company, Central European Media Enterprises (CME), is currently in the process of merging with Kellner’s PPF investment group. The move means that PPF is also poised to acquire other television stations in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia. PPF’s acquisition of CME was agreed in October 2019 for a price of around 2.1 billion dollars (about £1.7 billion). Completion of the deal was conditional on approval being granted by the regulatory authorities of the countries concerned and by the European Commission. In April 2020, CME announced that most of the regulatory hurdles had been overcome; all that now remains is for the European Commission to give the green light to the deal. With the transfer of TV Nova to PPF – now expected to be finalised by the third quarter of this year – the takeover of Czech media by domestic owners will be complete.
This is a landmark development, as not since 1989 has the Czech media industry been entirely in Czech hands. Soon after the Velvet Revolution of that year, foreign investors moved in and acquired large parts of the Czech media market. It was not until the financial crash of 2008 that this process began to go into reverse. The withdrawal of foreign owners from the Czech market then created an opportunity for domestic entrepreneurs who had made their fortunes in other industries to move into Czech media.
The first of these was Zdeněk Bakala, who acquired the publishing house Economia in 2008. Over the next few years, other businessmen also added media outlets to their portfolios: from Andrej Babiš’s purchase of the media group Mafra (which publishes some of the most popular outlets in the country) in 2013, via Daniel Křetínský and Patrik Tkáč’s creation of the Czech News Center in 2014, to the takeover of the Vltava-Labe Press by the investment group Penta in 2015.
The arrival of foreign investors in the post-communist media space was at the time considered a key guarantee that communism would never return and that democracy and the free market would flourish on its ruins. Jan Miessler
“The gradual withdrawal of international owners from the region became apparent in 2009 as media owners sought to focus on their home markets and/or on strategic sectors, particularly in new media and Internet services, to counter declining revenues from newspaper publishing. The Czech-Slovak business groups also offered favorable prices for the media assets, and economic benefits resulting from the sales probably played a role,” is how Martina Vojtěchovská describes the transformation of the Czech market in her contribution to the volume In the Service of Power: Media Capture and the Threat to Democracy (2017).
Vojtěchovská – head of the Media Studies Department of the Metropolitan University Prague and editor-in-chief of Mediaguru.cz – added that the likely effect of these changes in media ownership would be to shift the Czech media system in the direction of a Mediterranean (polarized pluralist) model, as described by Hallin and Mancini in their study Comparing Media Systems (2004). Although PPF is de jure a foreign owner (its headquarters are in the Netherlands), because of its connections with Petr Kellner, the founder and majority shareholder, it can de facto be considered a Czech finance group.
Reversing the trend
“The takeover of media organisations by domestic billionaires goes against the previous trend of the globalisation of media ownership. The arrival of foreign investors in the post-communist media space was at the time considered a key guarantee that communism would never return and that democracy and the free market would flourish on its ruins,” Jan Miessler of the Department of Media Studies at Charles University’s Faculty of Social Sciences told EJO. According to Miessler, in some Eastern European countries local oligarchs began to look for ways to consolidate their influence via the media as early as the 1990s. “Oligarchs exercising control over media have been the norm in Eastern Europe since the 1990s,” he said.
The takeover of TV Nova has become a matter of concern to US lawmakers such as the Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who in February called on the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) to review the sale, saying that “it undercuts U.S. national security interests related to Central and Eastern Europe, as well as to China”. Rubio referred to PPF interests in China, noting that its subsidiary Home Credit operates there.
In an interview with the Czech news weekly Respekt, Rubio said PPF did not deserve to own media because it had forfeited the trust of the public through some of its previous attempts to influence public debate. Examples of this include the covert funding of a think-tank set up with the aim of improving China’s public image and blunting the impact of the China-critical Sinopsis project linked to Charles University’s Department of Sinology.
The main problem with the concentration of media with business and political interests is the opportunity it offers to proprietors to promote their other interests. Concerns over PPF’s acquisition of TV Nova and other media outlets are justified in view of the way in which these moves serve the company’s interests in areas such as banking and telecommunications.
Promoting their own agenda
“It would be naive to believe that rich media proprietors do not have an agenda that they intend to promote through their media, or that the employees of these media outlets will fight tooth and nail against such an agenda,” Miessler told EJO. However, he does not believe that the transfer of major media houses into the hands of Czech businessmen has triggered a fundamental change. “What change could the richest and most powerful men in the country want to bring about through their media? It’s in their interests to keep things just as they are. Preserving the status quo is precisely what enables them to hold on to their privileged position.”
According to media freedom advocates, what is needed is a modus vivendi that both guarantees editorial independence from the media owners’ other interests and provides a safeguard against a relentlessly populist approach. A mere press statement by the owner declaring non-interference in editorial matters is not in itself enough.
Safeguarding editorial independence
“It should be possible to draft a code of conduct, a kind of contract with journalists who work for these media, a symbolic contract. It should be possible to set up internal processes so that the one who pays the piper doesn’t get to call the tune, and it should be possible for the media themselves to set up independent regulatory bodies to monitor the situation,” the head of the non-profit Endowment Fund for Independent Journalism (NFNZ), Josef Šlerka, said in an interview with the online TV channel DVTV in which he outlined some options for reducing the risks involved.
It would also help if journalists themselves were more prepared to take collective action, in the same way as the staff of France’s Le Monde last year insisted that one of the paper’s new owners – coincidentally, the Czech Daniel Křetínský – agree to their demands for editorial independence.
Charles University’s Jan Miessler also underlined the role that journalists need to play: “The watchdogs of democracy are themselves not without blame, as even when they were under the ‘benign’ control of foreign owners, they didn’t pay enough attention to the rise of the oligarchs.”
This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on EJO’s Czech site.
Opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views, policies or positions of the EJO.
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