How a media mogul helped turn Czechs against refugees
Politics in central and eastern Europe are increasingly driven by the businesses that own media outlets
ON SEPTEMBER 7th 2015, a few days after Germany decided to open its borders to tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who were stranded on their migration route into Europe, the management of TV Prima, a Czech television station, called a meeting with its news team. The network had been presenting a mix of stories on the migrants, sometimes portraying the difficulties they caused for European countries, sometimes their own suffering and hopes. But at the meeting, a senior editor and board member ordered the journalists to portray the refugees exclusively as a danger. “The custom here is that the broadcast management is God, and one just doesn’t talk back to God,” TV Prima’s editor-in-chief, Jitka Obzinova, says in an audio recording of the meeting.
“The message was, we will not be objective, we have to push the politics and close the border. Migrants are a mass of people, not individuals,” says one journalist who was present. “It was against all codes of journalism.”
It is hardly news that most media in the Czech Republic, as elsewhere in central and eastern Europe, took a sensationalist anti-immigrant line during the refugee crisis. What was striking about the TV Prima recordings, which were published early this summer by Hlidaci Pes (“Watchdog”), a Czech website, was how brazenly management overrode editorial staff to dictate the coverage. Half of the network’s shares are owned by Ivan Zach, a businessman seen as close to the country’s populist left-wing president, Milos Zeman. Mr Zeman has been among Europe’s most paranoid opponents of the refugees, and TV Prima has echoed his line. The meeting at TV Prima was not just a case of a Czech news organisation deciding to wind up public hysteria over refugees. It was a window into how public opinion in central and eastern Europe is shaped by the increasingly tight connections of politicians, well-connected businessmen and the media groups they control.
Western European media groups played a major role in financing the new independent press in former Soviet-bloc countries after the collapse of communism. But since the financial crisis of 2008, with advertising revenues falling, foreign investors have been pulling out. The German publishing groups Verlagsgruppe Handelsblatt and WAZ, the British media groups Northcliffe and Mecom, the Swedish media group Bonnier, and the Swiss publisher Ringier all sold off assets in the region. They were largely replaced by local owners, many of them with political ambitions.
In the Czech Republic, the interconnection of media, business and politics is best represented by Andrej Babis, the finance minister and a billionaire who owns two of the country’s biggest daily newspapers and a radio station. TV Prima is actually one of the last holdouts with foreign ownership: MTG, a Swedish media group, owns half its shares, but Mr Zach exercises greater day-to-day control. Mr Zach owes much of his wealth to the privatisation of Investicni a Postovni Banka (IPB), which took place when Mr Zeman was prime minister. These days Mr Zeman is regularly featured on TV Prima’s news discussion programmes, where he generally gets favourable treatment. In response to allegations in the Czech press that the connection influenced its coverage, TV Prima says it “never comment(s) on speculation”.
In Hungary, the political rise of Viktor Orban, the prime minister, coincided with the purchase of a major daily, Magyar Hirlap, by Gabor Szeles, a businessman, in 2005. The newspaper had previously been owned by Ringier; Mr Szeles replaced its liberal editorial staff, and also founded Echo TV, a cable-television station. Both outlets provided Mr Orban with favourable coverage.
In Romania, political parties depend on the backing of the country’s television barons, who use their channels to punish their enemies. A number of media executives face investigation for bribery, blackmail, and money-laundering in cases with political ties. Freedom House, a media watchdog, has called the situation “dire”. In Poland the most important television news network is state-owned rather than private, but since taking power last year, the Law and Justice party has changed the media law and packed state television and radio with loyalists. It also seems to be punishing critical private media;Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest liberal daily, claims its advertising revenues are down 15% this year and blames the loss of government advertising.
All of this has had a baleful effect on the independent press. Last year Poland tumbled 29 spots to 47th on the press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders, a watchdog. Hungary ranks 67th, just behind Malawi.
Even without the intervention of politically motivated media, public opinion in central and eastern Europe was predisposed towards hostility to migrants. But the media have fanned the flames. Throughout last year, Mr Zeman peddled increasingly harsh anti-migrant rhetoric, alleging that the Muslim Brotherhood was co-ordinating refugee flows. TV Prima followed suit, mistranslating interviews to make refugees appear ungrateful and at one point claiming that 150m migrants were heading for Europe. The station is among the most-viewed in the country. One Czech poll found that opposition to taking in refugees jumped from 50% to 65% between September 2015 and February this year.
In a report issued in June, the Czech broadcasting regulator found that the station’s tone shifted dramatically after the September 2015 meeting. It condemned the broadcasts for “not pay[ing] much attention to the perspectives of the refugees themselves and depict[ing] them rather as a source of problems”. It plans to release a longer report this month that may recommend sanctions. Robert Brestan, the reporter who broke the story of the TV Prima meeting, called it “a clear attempt to manipulate public opinion”. With media in central and eastern Europe increasingly controlled by politically connected owners, that description is starting to fit more and more of the region’s news.