Josef Slerka, Katerina Hrubesova, Stepan Sanda
Czechia, then still Czechoslovakia, used to be part of a bloc of Eastern European states under Soviet influence – the media (except for the unofficial ones) were controlled by the state. After the 1989 coup, some press outlets disappeared, while others were transformed and privatised under the emerging free-market system. The first Czech tabloid was also established in the 1990s. Foreign owners, typically from Germany, also entered the Czech media landscape at that time, but following the economic crisis in 2008, they have been gradually withdrawing and local media have been taken over by Czech entrepreneurs with backgrounds outside the media industry. It is important to mention that with a total population of 10 million, Czechia is a very small market, undoubtedly affecting the local media landscape, which cannot have large revenues or sales.
In the print sector, large media companies, which include both print and web media, have a significant market position. Mafra owns a total of four outlets out of thirteen in this segment in our sample and belongs to the holding Agrofert, operating in many different fields. Currently, Agrofert falls under the trust fund “AB private trust I”, whose trustee is Andrej Babiš – oligarch and former Prime Minister.
Daily Právo, its sister website Novinky.cz and newspaper Deník N are the only media outlets in our sample that are not tied to the financial background of their owners. Deník N is a project founded through the Independent Press Foundation by six Czech businessmen (some of them are also founders of NFNZ). Thanks to the chosen legal form, these businessmen do not have any formal influence on the editorial office. Moreover, some members of the editorial office also own shares in the publishing company. The editor-in-chief of Právo, Zdeněk Porybný, has been the majority owner of the newspaper since its privatisation in the 1990s, and is therefore one of the few traditional Czech media entrepreneurs.
Besides that, only owners who came into the media business from other backgrounds operate in the field. The first local billionaire buying Czech media was Zdeněk Bakala. In recent years he has focused mainly on philanthropy, which to some extent includes his media purchases. His publishing house Economia currently publishes seven print and four online media.
Vltava Labe Media, a publishing house belonging to the Penta Investment group, has a strong position in the print media market. The most important title is the network of regional dailies, which are published in (almost) every district town, thus generating a significant reach in most parts of the country. In addition, Penta owns lifestyle and TV magazines as well as some niche (web-only) titles.
In the sphere of tabloids, and therefore the most widely read newspapers, the group of Daniel Křetínský and his partners dominates through the Czech News Center. Through parent company Czech Media Invest, Křetínský also controls the French lifestyle magazines Marianne and Elle and daily Le Monde. The group’s radio and video-on-demand activities fall under the same company.
In the radio sector, dominating the market are the aforementioned Daniel Křetínský through Czech Radio Center and Andrej Babiš with the most listened-to commercial station Impuls. The dominant position on the television market is shared by two actors. First, PPF, the company of Renata Kellnerová (widow of businessman Petr Kellner), which owns the Nova channel package, and second, Ivan Zach, who owns various channels under the name Prima. The other broadcasters have a minority position in the market. Public service media also plays a significant role in Czech media landscape in the radio and television sector.
In recent years, the media activity of Ivo Lukačovič, an internet entrepreneur and owner of Seznam.cz, has also been growing. However, his activities do not yet show signs of oligarchy, as he is active in a limited number of industry segments.
We identify three important patterns in media ownership. At the level of private media with a large reach, there is a concentration of ownership of a few companies that do not have the main focus of their business in the media sector. These are Agrofert, PPF, Penta and Daniel Křetínský’s companies, who cumulatively reach a significant part of the domestic audience with their news coverage, as shown by research for NFNZ (Šlerka & Wichterlová, 2020).
This concentration directly threatens the independence of the media in Czechia, as all of these owners operate in areas heavily regulated by the state and are among the largest in the country. Moreover, in the case of Agrofert, beneficiary is the former Prime Minister and current MP Andrej Babiš – a direct concentration of economic, political and media power.
After Babiš bought Mafra, some journalists left the publishing house and set up their own smaller independent projects. Some of them have now reached the size of medium-sized publishers, representing media that are independent of large business entities.
Finally, the third group of media is those that can be published thanks to the Seznam Newsfeed distribution system (see section 2.2.). These are typically business ventures relying on a small editorial staff and the core of their business is taking content from other sources. Although these projects are usually not the size of the previous two, in aggregate their reach is considerable, especially for Seznam.cz users.
Data on Czech companies is relatively well available – mainly thanks to the online, publicly and free of charge accessible Business Register. Citizens have access to basic data about the composition of the supervisory and administrative bodies and information about the owners. Besides, they can find there a historical record with changes in the ownership or organisational structure of the company. Companies are obliged to regularly upload documents such as annual reports, minutes of general meetings or documents on changes in the company’s organisation.
But we have also encountered some unavailable or difficult to trace data. When a Czech company is owned by a foreign company, the availability of information about the real owners is reduced. Due to tax conditions, some of the media with a high market share use headquarters in countries with lower taxation, such as Cyprus (Seznam.cz) or the Netherlands (PPF). Luckily, most companies admit in their other documents who owns them, or it is publicly known. There is also relatively new public service of Evidence of Beneficial Owners.
However, some outlets lacked information about their newsrooms – that is, whether there is any editorial statute that guarantees independence from the owner or otherwise governs authority within it. Similarly, some outlets lacked clear and summarising information about the structure of the newsroom in general.
Information about state subsidies to individual media companies would also be less accessible, if it were not for some civic initiatives. Compared to the public service media, private media companies did not provide this information in their annual reports. Information on advertising by state-owned enterprises was not publicly available at all. For the EurOMo research, we approached the research agency to provide this data for a fee. Why it could be a problem could demonstrate web-only outlet (not included in our sample) Parlamentnilisty.cz with clear anti-system agenda which also published politicians texts for a fee (Kundra, 2017) and in past years got money from state advertising (Čápová, 2019).
Reach data for online media are monitored by external bodies such as Netmonitor. These media themselves do not provide a constant overview and development of traffic/subscriptions to their websites. Given the increasing importance of web-based news media, it would be useful to have a regular overview of the online media landscape given that external measurements may not include all relevant sites.
One of the main risks is the lack of clarity on owners’ influence on editorial content. The reader cannot know when the information is on the media’s agenda and when it is on the owner’s agenda. In such a situation, there is a risk of economic or political instrumentalisation of the media based on owners’ conflict of interest.
At the same time, if the relationship between the editorial office and the owner is not clarified, or if no binding or informal force would protect the editorial office from the interference of the management or the owner, it is impossible to effectively counter possible interference in content outside the editorial office. The weak collective position of journalists is also affected by the dysfunctional nature of the self-regulatory professional organisation.
This is related to a very widespread problem of Czech media, PSM included: vaguely defined employment. Although a media worker performs their work as a typical employee (e.g., attends news shifts), the company does not have necessarily an employee-employer relationship with them. This system reduces the cost of compulsory contributions to the state for the company. If an employment relationship is not created, workers cannot form a union or the “employer” can terminate the agreement with them at any time, etc. All of this fosters a kind of insecurity for journalists and other media workers and reduces the will to organise and thus act as a minimal counterweight to proprietary, commercial, or managerial interference in an environment of (presumed) absence of editorial statutes.
Given the increasing level of political polarisation, which is likely to intensify with the emerging crises, public media councils may face growing political influence and efforts to transform them from an expert supervisory body to a control political body.
Other major risks for the Czech media may include unclear definitions of how the state finances what media. Firstly, this data is hard to get, and secondly, there is a widespread understanding of media as another business venture rather than as a specific social service. This supports the potential for non-transparency with the argument of non-interference of the state in the private sphere. Pressure for transparency is thus mainly exerted by citizens’ initiatives.
To start with print media, both subscription numbers and sales are declining due to changes in consumption patterns of Czech readers who tend to consume news through digital media. One of reaction of print media to this could be free colportage. Although it takes place marginally (Mafra is dominant in this respect with its Metro and 5+2 outlets), it does exploit the low-end target group of readers. In the distribution of print media, First Newspaper Company (PNS) is dominant. It is an alternative postal operator with an 80% market share.
In the distribution of radio signals, the dominant player is Czech Radiocommunications, and alongside it, there are several smaller, regionally focused broadcasters. There is more competition in DAB+ digital broadcasting, but the allocation of frequencies for proper full-screen networks is still pending. Within TV signal distribution there is most competition among IPTV providers nowadays. Cable companies are gradually switching to this solution to provide VOD services in addition to one-way linear broadcasting. The least competition is in DVB-T2, where there are two major players, one of which was until recently a monopoly (Czech Radiocommunications), and the emergence of the other (Digital Broadcasting) has effectively helped to kick-start digital broadcasting by deploying lower prices for signal distribution. Satellite TV experienced a boom around 2012 and has been in decline since then.
Unsurprisingly, non-linear news distribution has become significantly more prevalent in recent years. According to the 2022 Digital News Report (Newman et al., 2022: 73), online news consumption has not fallen below 85%. Traditional ways of getting news are therefore decreasing.
As in other countries, in Czechia major non-linear distributors of content are social media. But Czechia has also an unique non-linear distributor, Seznam’s Newsfeed programme. Newsfeed differs from aggregators as Google News in several ways. Most visible is incorporation of Seznam’s advertising system, which is placed on the publisher’s site in the prescribed formats.
Participating publishers then send their selected output to Seznam in a special RSS feed and Seznam editors select articles from it. These are then displayed on home page and readers click through to the publisher’s article. The sites thus get considerable traffic, which can be tens of thousands of extra hits per day. The publisher receives advertising revenue from Seznam, which delivers high traffic while increasing the space for their advertising. It also helped to create an environment in which several smaller sites have sprung up (see section 1.2.).
The distribution of the press is mostly controlled by Czech oligarchs. The main shareholders of PNS are the publishing houses owned by the oligarchs – Mafra (37,51%), Vltava Labe Media (35%) and Czech News Center (27,02%), so these companies are in conflict of interests. Dominant position of the distribution company PNS has already been challenged once – in 2002, Mediaprint Kapa filed a complaint with the antimonopoly office for abuse of the dominant position of a major competitor. This complaint was dismissed as unfounded.
Concerning broadcast distribution, interviewed experts did not indicate any significant risk to ownership transparency. The most significant intervention in this market was the purchase of the European-scale broadcaster CME (including the Czech TV Nova) by the PPF, which is also active in telecommunications. To a certain extent, the strengthening of Seznam.cz, which is a key distributor and at the same time expands its services in the field of news production could also be a risk for healthy media landscape.
In the area of net neutrality, just one issue could be addressed – problem of identification and possible limitation of access to disinformation or fake news. There is a lack of sufficient methodology for identifying these media, as well as a legislative framework and conditions under which it is possible to restrict its operation. NGOs and non-profit organisations substitute the tasks of the state with varying degrees of success.
None of the laws governing media ownership literally mention the obligation to disclose beneficiaries. Press Act (46/2000) prescribes the obligation of the publisher to publish specific information about themselves in copy of the outlet. The obligation to provide basic information about the service provider is required for operators of broadcasting and audio-visual services on demand, too. Media ownership in terms of transparency has recently been affected both by an amendment (14/2017) to the Conflict of Interest Act (159/2006), which inserted a provision that a public official may not publish periodicals, operate broadcasting or be a partner in such companies. Act on Registration of Beneficial Owners (37/2021) requires legal persons to provide information on their beneficial owners. The register is publicly accessible both on request and through the website. Media operations are also affected by the Act on Advertising (40/1995), which obliges the disseminator of advertising, that is, the media, to provide data on the processor or the sponsor upon request of the supervisory authority.
If the main normative expectation is that media should be transparent in providing information about their ownership, the Czech legal framework only partially corresponds to it. In the sphere of print media, it specifies which information must be published, but these are very limited – it is sufficient to have the name, registered office and identification number of the publisher (in the case of a legal entity) in the outlet, but not, for example, the ultimate owner or beneficiary. The legal regulation of radio and television broadcasting contains a similar provision, prescribing that their operators should ensure direct access to basic information about themselves, such as the name, identification number and the address of the registered office. When deciding whether to grant a licence, the Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting considers, among other things, transparency of ownership, but the law does not require this part of the application to be discussed at a public hearing. In this respect, it is therefore primarily for the Council to assess any potential inconsistencies in the transparency of ownership.
The normative assumption that persons in political power should not own media (at least formally) is satisfied by amendments to the Conflict of Interest Act. Although it is nicknamed Lex Babiš, it does not seem to have restricted his media power in any way.
It is also increasingly important to make the functioning of digital information intermediaries more transparent. Although Czech legal framework regulates on-demand audio-visual services, other digital services such as social networks, search engines, or newsfeeds are not yet regulated. In this respect, forthcoming European legislation in the form of the Digital Service Act or the Digital Markets Act could help. However, Czechia is regularly struggling to transpose EU law into its legal system – as illustrated by the P2B regulation or the AVMSD, which are still not implemented. Because of delay in the adoption of the AVSMD, the country is threatened with legal action and possible financial sanctions from the Union.
The way in which elections to the councils of public service media are set up has posed a significant risk in Czechia in recent years. Councillors are elected by the Chamber of Deputies based on proposals from various interest groups and organisations (cultural, regional, religious, etc.). No certain level of education or expertise are required, and political rather than expert personalities may be elected to the supervisory body. The Chamber of Deputies has the right to remove members of the councils under certain conditions. Election does not contribute to transparency, especially given the potentially opaque nominating organisations. However, the current government wants to novelise PSM media council legislation to spread the powers over them between Chamber of Deputies and Senate.
One may also wonder whether the current regulation of the conflict-of-interest law is sufficient. The ownership of the media by Czech oligarchs, who operate in sectors heavily regulated by the state, seems problematic too. There is no law specifically regulating media ownership.
As in other countries, the technological progress of recent years is a risk with innovations in the media sphere that the legal framework can only respond to very slowly. This can be illustrated by the lack of regulation for digital information intermediaries, as they do not have to disclose information on how content is curated or offer alternative options to the user.
Another risk is that the concentration of media ownership is overseen only by the general antitrust authority, for which the media sector may be both too small in the context of other industries and opaque due to the small size of the market. This may lead to the impossibility (due to overload of other obligations) to sanction breaches of legal obligations, whether in terms of publishers’ mandatory disclosure of information or in terms of illegal advertising.
All of this leads to the media landscape being overseen more by civic initiatives, and normative rules being shaped more informally, which, while not necessarily a bad thing, limits the ability to enforce these rules in any way. Thus, civic initiatives dealing with media issues generally have very limited legal power to enforce information relevant to the transparency of media ownership or media operations in general.
Most economic information was readily available through the public online business register, including access to annual reports – companies are required to upload these documents to the system on a regular basis. Paradoxically, there is no single state-managed database in the Czechia where data on state support for which media are readily available. We had to buy this data from a research agency (advertising) or use a civil society project – the public contracts aggregator Hlidacstat.cz. Surprising was the lack of information provided by some outlets in terms of staff data. Although some outlets identify a certain political affiliation in terms of content, this affiliation is no longer evident from an institutional point of view – in most cases, at least officially, outlets are not linked, for example, staff-wise or financially, to a political or social institution such as a party or a church. In the case of owner-individuals, we assessed affiliation mainly in terms of financial donations made by individuals to parties, movements, or other political entities.
Čápová, H. (2019). Státní reklama: Kdo také platí Parlamentní listy. Investigace.cz. Available at: https://www.investigace.cz/statni-reklama-kdo-take-plati-parlamentni-listy/.
Kundra, O. (2017). Jak fungují Parlamentní listy. Respekt.cz. Available at: https://www.respekt.cz/special/2017/dezinformace/most-na-druhy-breh .
Newman, N., Fletcher, R., Robertson, C. T., Eddy, K., & Nielsen, R. K. (2022). Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022. 164.
Šlerka, J., Wichterlová, M. (2020). Oligarchizace médií není mýtus. NFNZ.cz. Available at: https://www.nfnz.cz/oligarchizace-medii-neni-mytus/.