Protesters gather at the Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic, May 6, 2019. Thousands of Czechs rallied in growing protests to demand the resignation of the new justice minister.
Protesters gather at the Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic, May 6, 2019. Thousands of Czechs rallied in growing protests to demand the resignation of the new justice minister.

Czech journalists and media analysts are raising alarm over the "threat" to the country's public media from mounting pressure on the press by populist politicians.

Members of the bodies supervising the Czech news agency CTK, Czech Television and Czech Radio are elected by lawmakers and now press watchdogs warn that some nominees might affect the quality of their coverage.

Next week, the Czech parliament is likely to propel Michal Semin, a journalist and writer who has blamed American elites for the 9/11 terror attacks, onto the CTK council.

"There is a big risk that a man with very extravagant views will sit on the board of a major public medium," Adam Cerny, head of the Czech Syndicate of Journalists, told AFP.

If elected, Semin will join council member and journalist Petr Zantovsky, who has said he would not mind CTK running news from the server of Sputnik, the Russian state-backed news agency.

Semin was nominated by the opposition far-right, anti-EU SPD party, while Zantovsky was the nominee of the ruling populist ANO movement of billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis.
Semin topped a first-round vote in early June, backed by ANO and SPD.

Those two parties may end up with five people on the seven-member CTK council, which appoints the agency's director and takes major decisions on its business.

"Czech public media are in jeopardy," said Tomas Trampota, a media sociologist at the University of New York in Prague (UNYP). "I see Semin's nomination as a threat."

Semin, the head of the D.O.S.T. (Enough) movement backing the SPD, once called Czech Television "a Bolshevik museum" and "a media swamp."

In 2016, he said the official explanation of the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, was "a fairy tale" and that the attacks were in part orchestrated by US elites, with Israel benefiting from the aftermath.

Semin told AFP that public media should "reflect the plurality of opinions in society". The uproar over his nomination was "big media manipulation," he added.

"It has strengthened my resolve to run and proved that I'm right about being more than embarrassed over our media world, the public one in particular," Semin said.

He said he was asked to run for the post by SPD leader Tomio Okamura, with whom he shares the desire for a "Czexit" from the European Union.

Okamura has repeatedly called Czech TV journalists "liars," while PM Babis has dubbed them "a corrupt bunch."

Babis leads a minority centre-left government of ANO and the leftwing Social Democrats with support from the Communists for a parliamentary majority.

He is in the media spotlight because of police charges against him over EU subsidy fraud, an EU probe into his dual role as a politician and entrepreneur, and allegations that he served as a secret Communist police agent in the 1980s.

Denying the allegations as a "smear campaign," the food, chemicals and media mogul is currently facing a wave of rallies against him across the Czech Republic — but he also enjoys stable 30-percent voter support in opinion polls.

Charles University political analyst Josef Mlejnek described Babis as a "pragmatic politician" who was building ties with the SPD on the media front.

"Public media are able to correct politicians' blather, their view of the world, fake news. That's why they want to control, destroy or debase them," Mlejnek told AFP. "This mainly concerns the populist camp."

The Czech Republic ranked 40th on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, which was put together by press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

It slid from 34th the year before, with RSF singling out President Milos Zeman  — Babis's political ally — as a threat.

Zeman is known for telling Russian President Vladimir Putin that "journalists should be liquidated," waving a dummy Kalashnikov at reporters at a press conference and slamming Czech TV for "manipulating public opinion."

Experts fear the situation could get worse next year when lawmakers reshuffle the Czech Television and Czech Radio boards.

"Given the parliament's current composition, there is considerable risk that the boards will become politicized and public media will fall prey to political power," Cerny said.