Politicians continue to undermine critical media in the Czech Republic. Mass protests persist
An estimated 250,000 people marched Sunday in the Czech Republic's biggest anti-government protest since the communist era, demanding that Prime Minister Andrej Babiš resign. https://t.co/bCHcpfYABA— Lili Bayer (@liliebayer) June 23, 2019
Independent journalism has been under attack in the Czech Republic: the media is increasingly polarised and mainstream politicians undermine critical media. The country’s rating on the press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders(RSF) fell six places in 2018, as RSF named oligarchs, and the country's higher officials - the President and the Prime Minister - among the actors that continue to undermine freedom of media.
In February 2019, the Prime Minister Andrej Babiš made derogatory remarks about the international outlets Deutsche Welle and the UK-based newspaper The Guardian because of their critical reporting, stating they had published "falsehoods and lies" about him. Babis comments were in connection to a news article published by Deutsche Welle exposing the recruitment of migrants at a poultry farm owned by Babiš and saying that was in contrast with his anti-migration rhetoric.
In a positive move, a new media freedom watchdog was set up in the country at the beginning of 2019. A number of leading journalists established the Czech branch of the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists defending media freedom and supporting independent journalism worldwide.
In April 2019, thousands of people joined protests in Prague and across the Czech Republic against the nomination of a new justice minister Marie Benesova and called for the resignation of the Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, on allegations of corruption. Demonstrators argued that Benesova is close to the Prime Minister Andrej Babis and hence fear that she may not pursue accountability for allegations of Babis misuse of EU funds. Suspicions had been raised as Benesova's appointment was made one day after police concluded its investigation and advised that the state prosecutor file charges against Prime Minister Andrej Babiš for European Union subsidies fraud. The prime minister claims the investigation is political motivated. If the prime minister stands trial and is found guilty, he could face five to ten years in prison.
Protesters demanded "Independent Justice," and chanted "We are not blind," and "We want an honest government." The continuing anti-government protests Million Moments (Milion Chvilek) have been branded as the biggest since the communist era, mobilising around 250,000 people in June 2019.
According to the polls, the growing protests impacted on the government's popularity since the demonstrations began to grow in scale in March. Despite the mass protests, Andrej Babis' government survived a no-confidence on 27th June 2019 with 85 against and 85 for and 30 abstentions or votes not cast. The next Czech legislative elections are scheduled for October 2021.
Transparency International Czech Republic accomplished a major step in holding current Czech Prime Minister @AndrejBabis to account over suspected conflicts of interest by submitting a formal complaint to the EU... https://t.co/AI8Mc9EhNJ— Transparency International 🇨🇿 (@Transparency_CZ) December 31, 2018
In March 2019, Zdeněk Koudelka, one of the two candidates backed by the President for the position of Deputy Public Defender of Rights was not elected, following opposition by the civil society. A number of civil society organisations protested and collected thousands of signatures against Koudelka's possible election claiming his controversial record would "discredit and paralyse" the institution as he lacks sufficient moral credit. The Office of the Public Defender of Rights (Ombudsman) plays an important role in protecting citizens rights in the Czech Republic against abuses of power by local authorities and the state. As one of the reasons for opposing the appointment of Koudelka, the CSOs pointed at his political affiliation to the current and past presidents, the support of the electoral law that aimed to disadvantage smaller parties and also his involvement in drafting mass amnesty in 2013 that led to thousands of prisoners been freed and halted dozens of fraud prosecutions, including some high-profile cases of alleged corruption dating back to the 1990s, causing a widespread controversy.
Separately, the Czech Ministry of Interior has significantly reduced the state funding for anti-graft organisations by more than one-quarter. On 15th April 2019, David Ondráčka, the head of the Czech chapter of anti-corruption group Transparency International said in an interview to Radio Prague:
“[By reducing the funding] They [the authorities] are basically sending a signal to NGOs: You should shut up and keep low.“
“I believe it’s a complete joke, because in reality the total funding is CZK 2.5 million a year, for all the NGOs together, which is like EUR 120,000.
“It’s really a ridiculous amount of money.”
Ondráčka explained that it is still uncertain whether funding will be reduced completely but explained that in any way this will lead to shrinking the activities of the anti-corruption organisations due to lack of resources. Ondráčka claimed that if the funding gets reduced the group will need to start fundraising from the general public and the corporate sector.