Protests on cost of living crisis, call on the government to abandon pro-western agenda
On 2nd September 2022, the ruling five-party coalition survived a no-confidence vote in the lower house of the Czech parliament submitted by the opposition centrist party Action for Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) and the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD). The MPs referred to allegations of corruption by the head of the External Affairs and Information Office, Petr Mleinek, who stood down the day before the debate began. The opposition also pointed to the government's inability to solve the growing economic problems, particularly the energy crisis.
The municipal and senatorial elections ended on the first weekend of October 2022. The ruling coalition, led by current Prime Minister Fiala, won 20 of the 27 open seats in the upper house of parliament and formed a solid majority. Of the 81 seats in the Senate, 41 are held by the governing coalition, five are held by former Prime Minister Babis' opposition party, and the remaining seats are filled by other parties and independent candidates.
On 12th September 2022, Prague’s Municipal Court opened the Stork’s Nest fraud trial against former Czech prime minister Andrej Babis. Babis is accused of illicitly obtaining €2m in EU small business funds. The trial will be taking place as presidential elections run in January 2023. Babis has not yet formally declared his presidential candidacy, and a conviction would shut him out of the race in which, according to polls, he occupies one of the leading positions.
This is not the only fraud accusation facing Babis. In August 2022, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that French prosecutors have opened an investigation into the ex-prime-minister on suspicion of money laundering related to his purchase of villas in the south of France. The proceedings were launched in February 2022 by the French National Prosecutor's Office (PNF) after the businessman was named in the Pandora documents, a massive leak of offshore documents. Babis denies any accusations and maintains that all operations were carried out lawfully.
"Czech Republic First!"
At the beginning of September 2022, several protests took place against the energy price increase and against the support for Ukraine. On3rd September 2022, a demonstration under the slogan "Czech Republic First!", which gathered around 70,000 people, called on the government to abandon its pro-Western agenda, withdraw from NATO and the EU, drop sanctions against Russia and agree on gas prices. Among other demands, organisers from the Communist Party and far-right SPD called for the resignation of the government. In turn, Prime Minister Petr Fiala deemed the protest to be organised by the far-right and radicals, who support and spread pro-Kremlin propaganda and disinformation. In response to the government’s reluctance to meet their demands, the organisers held another proteston 28th September 2022 (Statehood Day), and yet another on 28th October 2022 (Czech Independence Day).
"Czech Republic against Fear"
A few days later, on 30th October 2022, a pro-democracy rally was held to counter the above protests. The demonstration, organised by the association under the slogan "Czech Republic against Fear", called for democratic values and for solidarity with Ukraine. Waving Czech, Ukrainian and EU flags, the demonstrators urged against fear-mongering. Police estimated the turnout to be in the tens of thousands.
On 26th October 2022, a protest was held on Wenceslas Square in Prague in support of LGBTQI+ equality. The protest took place in reaction to the hate murder of two young men in Bratislava earlier in October. Human rights activists, celebrities and public figures have condemned the Czech and Slovak governments for ignoring LGBTQI+ rights and allowing harmful stereotypes to spread. Protest organisers reported that more than 18,000 people signed a petition demanding the authorities adopt legislation for the better protection of members of the LGBTQI+ community.
Related to LGBTQI+ rights, an anti-LGBTQI+ constitutional amendment pushed by Christian Democrats, which would enshrine the concept of marriage as a union between a man and a woman and be meant to counter initiatives for legalising gay marriage, failed to reach a three-fifth majority in the Chamber of Deputies. On 24th August 2022, Prime Minister Fiala announced that the government had agreed to take a "neutral" stance on the bill. The same stance was taken on the passage of a bill to legalise same-sex marriagea month earlier. In the Czech Republic, registration of a same-sex partnership is allowed, but this does not provide access to formal marriage or the adoption of children. Activists argue that no significant action has been taken to ensure equal rights for LGBTQI+ persons since the same-sex marriage registration law was passed in 2006.
Skupina 54 poslanců a poslankyň z @kducsl, @ODScz, ANO, @tomio_cz a @TOP09cz v čele s hlavními předkladateli @MarekVyborny z KDU-ČSL, @marekbenda2013 z ODS, @vlvalek z TOP 09, @juchelkaa z ANO a Aleš Dufek z KDU-ČSL - hlavní předkladatelé jsou pouze muži - předložila návrh, ...🧵 pic.twitter.com/BAhZP7YQyl— Jsme fér (@JsmeFer) July 28, 2022
Climate change protests
On 14th November 2022, students at Czech universities began a series of protests against the climate crisis, demanding that the government take immediate action to address global warming, rising energy prices and growing social inequalities. The organisers of the demonstration - the Universities for Climate (Univerzity za Klima) movement - held various activities that later took the form of a sit-in protest and overnight stays at the university. The activists met with no resistance from most universities, although some noted the inconsistency between the demonstrators' actions and their stated aim. The website of the Faculty of Arts of Charles University (FF UK) states that the management supports the students' position, however, the consumption of energy and water, along with the operating costs, will increase because of such university "sleepovers".
Lacking disinformation strategy
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought with it an increase in disinformation and pro-Russian propaganda sources. After blocking eight pro-Kremlin websites at the beginning of the invasion, the government has faced criticism for its lack of a strategy to combat disinformation and its use of authoritarian measures without a legal basis. The Interior Ministry was reportedly planning to introduce a bill in October 2022 aimed at creating a legal framework for the authorities to block websites deemed to be a security threat.
Subverting press freedom
On 5th September 2022, Czech newspapers Mladá fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny published front page advertisements by Andrej Babiš, which questions the impartiality and objectivity of journalists. The covers, which asked readers whether they believe in media and encouraged them to rather follow Babiš on social media, were published a week before the former prime minister was due to stand trial on charges of subsidy fraud. Both newspapers have been under Babiš's control since 2013, following the purchase of the Mafra publishing group, which also includes ownership of one of the Czech Republic's largest commercial radio stations. Journalists and public figures have repeatedly pointed to the pressure Babis places on media independence and accused him of pushing his political agenda and appointing his confidants on the ground. Michal Klíma, the Czech commissioner for the media and countering disinformation, stated: "... Andrej Babiš has been attacking free media from the beginning, and that’s the reason he bought these newspapers: to influence them and change them from the path of independence."
České denníky Mladá fronta Dnes a Lidové noviny dnes vyšli s inzerciou Andreja Babiša, ktorá na titulnej strane spochybňuje nestrannosť a objektivitu novinárov.— Richard Balázs (@balazsrichard) September 5, 2022
• @dennikN https://t.co/XLbVEhn1hT pic.twitter.com/mLGsNbzKxJ
Media independence has again been widely discussed as amendments to the media law are being considered. On 13th October 2022, media freedom and journalists’ organisations and unions coordinated by Media Freedom Rapid Response signed an open letter urging Czech MPs to pass media act amendment to strengthen the institutional independence of Česká televize (Czech Television) and Český rozhlas (Czech Radio). The new bill, which was up for debate in the parliament first on 13th October 2022, aims to safeguard the functional independence of the Czech Television Council. In order to successfully ensure media independence, the letter also points to the need to reform public media finances in general.