The Czech Republic has dropped another six spots in the annual global ranking of press freedom published by the watchdog Reporters Without Borders. The country is now in 40th place, after a steady slide over the past four years.
The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, has been publishing its ranking of 180 countries according to the level of freedom available to journalists, since 2002.
The Czech Republic once led the former eastern Bloc countries on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. In the years 2014 and 2015, the country ranked 13th overall, comfortably within the “good situation” zone.
Now, according to the Index, which evaluates media pluralism, independence and other factors allowing – or preventing – journalists from work without fear or favour, the situation of the 40th ranked Czech Republic is “satisfactory” but only just – topping the “problematic” category in 44th place is Botswana.
“The video of Czech President Miloš Zeman brandishing a dummy Kalashnikov with the inscription ‘for journalists’ at a press conference in October 2017 will be remembered as a classic example of hatred towards journalists.” – Reporters without Borders
Adam Černý, chairman of the Czech Syndicate of Journalists, says this country’s steady slide stems mainly from the increased concentration of media in the hands of a few oligarchs.
“First, it’s the concentration of ownership. That’s the main thing. You can see a clear correlation with the entry of current Prime Minister Andrej Babiš into politics and then the executive position.
“Second, you can also link it with the actions of President Miloš Zeman – for example, in the manner he presents himself on TV Barrandov is very clearly not up to the standard in western democracies.”
RSF calculates the degree of freedom available to journalists by pooling experts’ responses to a comprehensive questionnaire and collecting data on documented abuses and acts of violence against journalists.
The watchdog called President Zeman to task in its report for repeated attacks on the media, especially Czech public TV, which he accused of “manipulating public opinion” in his second inaugural speech.
RSF says Czech media ownership concentration is reaching “critical levels”, with oligarchs using their personal fortunes to buy outlets to reinforce their influence.
Prime Minister Andrej Babiš owns the country’s two most influential daily newspapers through a trust but arguably remains the beneficial owner in violation of conflict of interest laws, says Adam Černý.
“Legally, he is not the owner, but he is still the beneficiary. Just this past year there was proof supporting the suspicion that he still has strong influence on the media.”
Reporters Without Borders notes that last April, three Czech investigative journalists reported police had tried to intimidate them in connection with their coverage of matters linked to Mr. Babiš while in September the prominent reporter Petra Procházková resigned from one the dailies in protest of his alleged meddling into its editorial policies.
Latvia, ranked in 24th place overall on RSF’s Index, is now the central and eastern European region’s best performer, followed by Lithuania (ranked 30th), Slovenia (ranked 34th) and Slovakia (ranked 35th). Faring far worse are Poland and Hungary, ranked 59th and 80th, respectively.