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21st Jul 2018

EU washes hands of Czech media debate

  • Babis: the second richest person in Czech Republic, the leader of the largest party and, until recently, deputy PM (Photo: European Council)

The risk to free press posed by Czech oligarch Andrej Babis is not serious enough to warrant EU intervention, the European Commission said on Tuesday (30 May).

Giuseppe Abbamonte, director of the media and data directorate at the EU commission, told MEPs in the civil liberties committee that “there is not a problem with the democratic fabric of the Czech Republic in general or the functioning of their institutions”.

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He said there was a “specific problem that may pose a risk in the future and which is so far being countered … by the current government”.

But he added “the premises to resort to the rule-of-law mechanism, I don’t know if they are there … there is no systemic threat to the democratic fabric of the Czech Republic”.

Abbamonte’s “specific problem” referred to revelations that Babis had instructed a journalist who worked for him on when to publish stories to discredit his political rivals.

Babis, who also has a political party called Ano and who was, until recently, the country’s deputy prime minister, was heard making the instructions in an audio recording that was leaked last month, prompting the European Parliament debate.

The Czech PM, Bohuslav Sobotka, fired Babis after the recording came out.

Concerns over democratic standards also prompted a law, earlier this year, that forced Babis to place his business holdings in a trust.

But the Ano party is leading in opinion polls and the story could see more twists if Babis returns to office as the Czech prime minister after elections in October.

Tuesday’s EU parliament debate came amid wider concern on democratic backsliding in central Europe.

The Commission has placed Poland under special monitoring, the so called rule-of-law mechanism of which Abbamonte spoke, due to government meddling in the country’s constitutional tribunal.

MEPs have also called for potential EU sanctions on the Hungarian government over its crackdown on NGOs.

Julie Majerczak, from Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based NGO, told MEPs on Tuesday that the Czech Republic was steadily falling in her organisation's press freedom index, mainly because its media had been bought up by a few millionaires.

"These businessmen didn't suddenly become impassioned with journalism and the free press, but they told themselves that by buying up the media they could extend their sphere of influence, and the influence of their friends," Majerczak said.

Babis was the most emblematic example of the trend, she said, but there were many other cases of "oligarchs doing their shopping", both in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe.

MEPs, during the debate, also expressed concerns about media freedom more widely in the EU.

Estonian socialist MEP Marju Lauristin said that the EU should have more powers to safeguard the independence of the free press.

She said EU laws were wrong to treat media like any other business, not recognising its special role in supporting democracy, and that the current review of the audiovisual media services directive did not go far enough.

The MEP, who is also a professor of social communications at Tartu university, added that journalists and civil society also had to take responsibility for creating a strong media culture.

Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in't Veld told the EU Commission it had more powers than it thought.

"The issue is very much a competence of the EU … We do tend to forget we have article 2 [in the EU treaty], which includes media freedom and media pluralism," said the Dutch lawmaker.

The EU parliament will discuss the Czech situation again in a plenary session on Thursday.

Babis has said the EU parliament debates were part of smear campaign against him. 

He said on Tuesday that the EU institutions should not interfere with the internal affairs of the Czech Republic. No MEP from his Ano party took the floor in the committee debate.

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Poland avoids talks on rule-of-law sanctions

EU ministers meeting in Brussels asked the Polish government to reverse its judicial reform, in their first discussion of the European Commission's probe.

EU starts legal action against Hungary

The EU Commission is to launch a legal probe into Hungary's attack on a Soros-funded university, but Hungary's Orban was unrepentant the he faced MEPs.

Anti-EU rhetoric props up Czech election race

The recent decision to stop taking asylum seekers is the latest sign of growing euroscepticism ahead of elections in October, with billionaire Andrej Babis as favourite.

Analysis

Will Austria's presidency give EU a populist push?

As Sebastian Kurz's government takes over the helm of EU-policy making for the next six months, Austrian MEPs from opposing sides weigh in on the EU's youngest prime minister's possible influence on the continent's future.

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