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11.03.2016

Has the Czech Republic its own “Berlusconi”?

by Jane Whyatt, research by Lucie Sykorová

The EU’S OLAF anti-fraud unit is investigating a company founded by one of the Czech Republic’s main newspaper owners. Andrej Babiš is also the Minister of Finance. His dual role in both media and government has led to comparisons with the former Italian leader and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

 Andrej Babi Andrej Babiš is owner of a main newspaper in the Czech Republic as well as the Minister of Finance

Dr Petra Guasti of the University of Prague is researching the media landscape in Eastern Europe. Interviewed by ECPMF, she described Andrej Babiš as "a very busy man".

"He took leave to become a politician but he doesn’t stop receiving his income and dividends from his company. He says he is no way involved in the media and the company, which has a new chairman. But given his rather authoritarian style this is hard to believe. The difference with Berlusconi is that he went directly after radio and TV in Italy and used the political career to de-liberalise the media and allow him the concentration of ownership."

Dr Guasti went on to explain how coverage in Babiš’s company newspapers appears selective, and omits coverage of the other party in the coalition government as well as opposition parties.

The change in coverage and balance was noticeable immediately when he became the owner. The parliamentary election coverage of 2013 was distorted by imbalance.

Her research at Prague University shows there is a growing concentration of media ownership and political influence. And Guasti blames the EU accession treaty of 2004 for creating conditions in the Czech Republic where access to Eastern Europe’s markets was more important than protecting media plurality.

"Their hands are tied by the treaties and as long as a new development is constitutional there is little the EU can do beyond naming and shaming and symbolic protests," she says.

Hear the full interview with Dr Petra Guasti here:

However, the fraud allegations against his Agrofert company may damage Babiš politically, and if the Czech Republic is forced to pay back the EU grant, the country will also suffer economically.

The OLAF investigation concerns the circumstances under which the Czech agricultural company Agrofert a.s. obtained an EU grant of 50 million Czech korunas (1.85 million euros) for the construction of a luxury farmhouse and congress centre at Čapí hnízdo. Andrej Babiš is the founder and owner of Agrofert a.s. In 2013 Agrofert purchased the company MAFRA, publishing Lidové noviny and Mladá fronta DNES newspapers and operating the Óčko TV. Agrofert also owns Radio Impuls.

The investigative news portal Neovlivní. cz broke the news on the OLAF case. The information about the investigation of Čapí hnízdo appeared on 25. February 2016 also in the daily newspaper MFdnes and on the online news portal iDNES - both owned by Andrej Babiš. Besides an article, a comment also came out from an economic reporter, Zuzana Kubátová: "Babiš has only one chance to save face: he has to admit to the error, if his own or his company's. And pay back the 50 million. Or alternatively donate the amount to support small business in the tourism industry," she wrote. 

Just six hours later, the news website iDNES published the reaction of Andrej Babiš to the information about the OLAF investigation and to this comment. "Subventions for the farm Čapí hnízdo have already been checked by authorities in the past, without any finding. It is absurd that I'm called upon to admit to a mistake which I didn't make and couldn't make. Therefore I don't see any reason for returning the money to the EU," says Babiš.    

"I will not jump as journalists whistle. The whole issue is of a political order, which is supposed to damage my reputation. Lawyers are sure that the police, the OLAF and the EU auditing authority can't find anything, because nothing happened. Therefore I'll await the results of the investigation. And to prove to the reporter Zuzana Kubátová that I don't cling to the money, I'm accepting her challenge, and with the 50 milion I increase the budget of Agrofert Foundation to 106 milion for this year,“ adds Andrej Babiš.



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