Journalists barred from press conference and attacked by outgoing Prime Minister

Journalists barred from press conference and attacked by outgoing Prime Minister
Outgoing PM Andrej Babiš has continuously harassed journalists (REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo via Gallo Images)


Legislative elections in Czech Republic were held on 8th and 9th October 2021, resulting in a positive outcome for the centre-right SPOLU (Together) coalition, with 27.79% of the vote. The ruling party, ANO, led by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, obtained 27.12% of the vote, coming in second place. On 11th November 2021, Andrej Babiš and his cabinet tendered their resignation. Babiš will continue to serve until the new coalition government is formed.

Just a few days prior to the vote, Andrej Babiš was involved in the “Pandora Papers” case, through an initiative carried out by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that exposed the offshore business affairs of over 300 international political and public figures. According to the findings from the investigation, in 2009 Babiš injected approximately 19 million Euros into shell companies to acquire properties in the south of France. Although transferring money to offshore structures for property acquisition purposes is not illegal, the Prime Minister failed to disclose the aforementioned companies and real estate properties in his asset declarations.

This is not the first time the Czech Prime Minister, who is the second-richest person in the country, faces allegations of financial wrongdoing. Prosecutors are expected to decide in the near future whether Babiš will have to face trial in a conflict-of-interest case related to his Agrofert conglomerate and EU funds.

On 10th October 2021, the day after the elections, Czech President Miloš Zeman was hospitalised due to severe ill health, raising concerns about his ability to perform his presidential duties and post-electoral procedures. In the weeks that followed, a slight improvement in Zeman’s health was reported by the media. Nevertheless, the national Senate plans to have an extraordinarily meeting on 9th November to discuss the course of action to take considering the President’s highly precarious health and the reports provided by the Central Military Hospital in Prague, where Zeman is currently hospitalised. During the month of October 2021, the Czech Senate considered the application of Article 66 of the Constitution, enacting a transferral of presidential powers to the Prime Minister and the Chairman of the Chamber of Deputies.

Corresponding to the European trend, COVID-19 cases experienced a significant increase in comparison with the summer months, reachingin October 2021 the highest number of cases since April 2021 and the highest number of hospitalisations since May.

Peaceful Assembly

LGBTQI+ pride parade
The Pride Festival was organised in the capital, Prague, from 2nd to 8th October 2021, aimed at raising awareness and calling for legislative action towards equal rights. This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, instead of the usual Parade the annual Pride consisted of a week-long event, comprising debates, screenings and performances. The director of the festival, Tom Bílý, commented on the Prague Pride organisers’ own decision to cancel the parade for the second year in a row, emphasising the need to protect the safety of the participants.

The Reclaim Pride group, nevertheless, organised an inclusive March for Equality through the capital on 7th August 2021 for all queer people, in protest at the failure to arrange the traditional Pride parade and in consideration of alarming recent eventsconcerning the LGBTQIA+ community both in Czechia and internationally. The Reclaim Pride event was organised through prior consultationwith experts to ensure the safety of the participants, and featuring speakersincluding Džamila Stehlíková, former Minister for Human Rights and Minorities.

This year, along with Reclaim Pride Czechia, the Act * Pride by ACT UP Prague, a movement aimed at raising awareness on HIV and AIDS and on the queer community, organised a smaller alternative festival to the official Prague Pride Festival, with free events focusing on LGBTQIA+ themes. Both alternative initiatives aimed at creating an alternative to what they perceive as a commercialised and constrained Pride parade in Prague that has lost a large part of its original protesting nature.

Anti-government protests

On 27th September 2021, demonstrative initiatives were organised by the association A Million Moments for Democracy. Yellow tape with the sentence “confiscated by ANO-FERT” were used to wrap and mark symbolic venues and monuments in several Czech cities. This represented an act to bring public attention to the political and economic influence exercised by the ANO ruling party and Prime Minister Babiš in view of the October elections. The statement published on the website of the association recited:

“This morning we woke up to a world that is no longer ours. This is what we feared for a long time. The prime minister's political-business group ANO-FERT confiscated everything in public space. [...]This is how our republic can look after the elections on 8th and 9th October. Unless we change it”.

This is not the only initiative launched by A Million Moments for Democracy in the last few months. In August 2021, the association organised an act of protest which covered the square in Průhonice with chalk crosses on the day of scheduled campaigning events by the Prime Minister, as a reminder of those Czechs who have lost their lives due to COVID-19 and to highlight the role of the government in the overall national management of the pandemic.

Climate protesters vilified

On 24th September 2021, more than a hundred individuals participated in a demonstration in Prague as part of the Fridays for the Future Movement global strike, to protest and raise public and political awareness on the need to fight climate change. According to A2larm, a group of young activists handed Prime Minister Babiš a report with demands on climate protection but he refused to accept it. Despite further attempts to achieve their objective, the activists were not allowed in the area of a pre-election meeting where Babiš and other ANO members were gathering.

A2larm had previously reported on a similar occurrence on 15th September 2021, involving the leader of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and Petr Fiala, head of the opposition SPOLU coalition. The young activist had approached Fiala, asking him about his intentions regarding environmental policies. To which he answered: “I do politics that bring something to people, and you don't!”.


Belarusian athlete threatened with deportation

During August 2021, in the context of the Olympics, the Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya became the protagonist in a case that gained international resonance following her critical statements on the Belarusian Olympic Committee. The committee decided to withdraw Tsimanouskaya due to her “emotional, psychological state,” and wanted to deport her back to Belarus. This came after she had complained on Instagram that she had been entered into a race on short notice as other teammates were found to be ineligible. She said that she spoke about the matter publicly, which resulted in her coach telling her that there was an “order from above” to remove her. As a result, the athlete sought asylum in another country as she feared for her safety when returning home.

The Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Jakub Kulhánek stated the government’s intention to offer a Czech visa to grant her protection. Eventually, among several proposals, the athlete accepted a humanitarian visa offered by Poland and flew to Warsaw on 4th August 2021.

Prime Minister hampers free press

On 1st October 2021, on the occasion of an event in Brno during the election campaign, Prime Minister Babiš was reported to have expelled a journalist from the outlet Respekt because journalists were not intended to be present, despite the fact that it was a public event.

Similarly, on 29th September 2021, a number of international and Czech journalists were not admitted to a joint press conference held in Ústí nad Labem by Prime Minister Babiš and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. According to the office of the government, the decision to exclude journalists was related to space logistics. However, pictures of lists of specific journalists' names and outlets highlighted in red emerged online. The Czech National Committee of the International Press Institute (CZ IPI) and the Endowment Fund for Independent Journalism (NFNZ) together condemned this occurrence.

“IPI strongly opposes this unnecessary obstruction of free journalistic work and condemns the discriminatory policy of barring journalists from certain media from attending press conferences. Worryingly, this is a tactic we see used all too often by the governments of both Orbán and Babiš, and across the Visegrad region, to side-line critical press and shield politicians and public officials from challenging questions,” - IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen.

Additionally, the Prime Minister has continued to attack journalists. As reported by Mapping Media Freedom, on 13th September 2021 Babiš targeted Jaroslav Kmenta, an investigative journalist at Reporter Magazine during an election campaign rally in Poděbrady. Kmenta, who previously wrote a critical book about the PM, attended the event with a journalist colleague to try and ask questions of Babiš in person. While waiting in a queue to speak to the PM, Babiš recognised him and began to shout and swear at him furiously in front of the onlooking crowd, allegedly calling him a “journalistic pig”, a “parasite” a “scoundrel” and “one of the biggest journalistic cesspools”.

On 3rd October 2021, Rory Tinman, a BBC Panorama journalist was forcefully shoved against a vehicle by a security guard as he was attempting to question PM Babiš about the Pandora Papers investigations. Journalists and media freedom organisations condemned the hostility and use of physical force against the BBC reporter.

On the same day, Hana Čápová, an investigative journalist with the Czech investigative reporting platform, was also aggressively pushed away by security guards when trying to pose questions to the PM, after his office had excluded her from a press conference on the day.

In an independent development following the decision of the High Court in Prague in May 2021, Tomio Okamura, leader of the Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD) and Deputy Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, faces significant fines for his statements about HlídacíPes, after he failed to adequately apologise to the Institute of Independent Journalism for his remarks. In 2017, Okamura referred to Hlídací as a “fraudulent website linked to George Soros' money” in a Facebook post, in reaction to an article published by the news outlet. In his post, Okamura referred to a number of human rights organisations, non-governmental organisations, political parties and funds as entities linked to Soros. Already in August 2019, the Prague Municipal Court had ruled against Okamura and had ordered him to publicly apologise online. In the context of the Prague High Court, the failure to provide the apology ordered by the judge was confirmation of the verdict that had already been issued against Okamura in 2019.