A Czech oligarch set to become the biggest player on Slovenian TV screens is facing criticism in his home country. Czech as well as European journalists point out the dangers associated with PPF’s political influence over the media in Central and Eastern Europe
The recently announced acquisition of CME by PPF (Reuters reporting here), owned by the richest Czech oligarch, has a rather significant impact for the Slovenian media market.
Provided that the EU as well as Romanian and Slovenian regulators approve the deal (Czech public TV broadcasting here), Slovenia’s PRO Plus, which belongs to Central European Media Enterprises (CME), is to become part of PPF Group in 2020. In other words both POP TV and Kanal A as well as Brio, Oto and Kino are part of a major shift in media ownership, a move which has already stirred controversy in the Czech Republic.
Although the owner of PPF Group, Petr Kellner, lives in the Czech Republic and has recently become active in promoting “conservative values” through establishing a conservative think-tank and expressing his concerns in the PPF annual report over the developments in the West and EU, particularly over the increasing “egalitarianism and relativizing of traditional values”, his PPF Group consists of numerous companies spread across the world (PPF itself is registered in the Netherlands).
While Kellner and PPF made Czech headlines in connection with the Panama Papers affair few years ago (Seznam news in Czech here), many of the PPF companies are also registered in Cyprus where they enjoy greater tax leniency and anonymity than in the Czech Republic. According to the PPF website the group’s greatest turnovers occur on the Russian, Chinese and southeastern markets in Asia, where PPF’s Home Credit International is active.
In fact, PPF prides itself in being the “first foreign entity to be licensed by the Chinese regulator to provide consumer finance services in China” (already since 2009 according to PPF’s official history, as stated here). In the meantime analysts at the Czech-based charity organization People in Need have reported that the Czech branch of Home Credit has been participating in the illegal extortion of property from its clients. (People in Need statement on Home Credit in Czech here).
It needs to be noted that Czech population is struggling with a soaring debt crisis which according to analysts has been sparked by the legislative measures resembling the debt legislation of Russia and China and falling short of the standards exercised across the EU (Observer published a report on Czech debt crisis here).
The Czech online outlet Sinopsis.cz, which focuses on China and is run by lecturers and researchers from the Institute of East Asian Studies at Charles University, regularly reports about Home Credit’s clients in China complaining of “usury practices” of “the Czech credit” as PPF is known in the People’s Republic of China (here).
In September and October much of Czech media reported on an announced controversial partnership between the Charles University and Home Credit under which Home Credit was to use the title of an “exclusive partner” of the oldest and most respected Czech university. Amid the public outcry, student petition and several faculties distancing themselves from such partnership (Charles University vice-chancellor Zima is since then facing calls to resign), Home Credit stepped away from the announced partnership (report in English available here).
Many Czech observers point out that PPF’s acquisition of CME is the group’s latest attempt to garnish their public image, but perhaps even more importantly a tool of asserting their political influence not only in the Czech Republic, but in the Central European region more effectively.
The Czech Syndicate of Journalists has called on PPF to guarantee independent journalism and democratic standards (the full statement in Czech is here) in a way reminiscent of demands Le Monde journalists addressed to another Czech oligarch, Daniel Křetínský (Kellner’s business partner and a partner of his daughter), who purchased a 50% stake in Le Monde’s parent company (Courriere International on Kretinsky and Le Monde and Columbia Journalism Review here).
PPF’s Director of Communications Vladimír Mlynář refused to address the demands of the Czech Syndicate of Journalists when presented with the statement by the Czech public TV broadcaster. Moreover, Mlynář went as far as questioning the Syndicate’s legitimacy saying he does not know who they represent and quoted his journalist and dissident past to support his own one-sided judgment of the Syndicate and of the Czech TV reporter whom he accused of displaying emotions (debate on Czech TV available here).
Since then the Czech Denik N has reported on Josef Šlerka, chairman of the Czech Fund of Independent Journalism, whose participation in the TV debate was canceled shortly before the start of it, just as he was on the way to the studio. Czech TV responded by saying that this has been a regrettable mistake by an individual employee of the company (full report here).
Previously, the Fund had issued a statement warning against further deterioration of media independence in the Czech Republic, which the forthcoming acquisition will facilitate, and called on PPF to publicly declare that CME will not become an instrument of “PPF’s business, financial and political interests” in the Czech Republic as well as in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia (full statement here).
The Fund’s statement echoes the recent warnings issued by the European Federation of Journalists and Reporters without Borders about the state of journalistic independence and freedom in the Czech Republic (here and here). Once a highest-ranking post-communist country in World Press Freedom Index, the Czech Republic has been steadily sliding down the list (in 2019 sitting 40th, a far cry from its top ten placement at the beginning of this decade).
Reporters without Borders cite the concentration of media ownership in the hands of few oligarchs and Czech PM’s political influence over the media, and police intimidation of journalists investigating the Czech PM (besides being Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš is a tycoon in control of large business agro-chemical empire and the second largest media group Mafra).
Babiš’ media influence is rivaled only by that of the aforementioned Daniel Křetínský who owns Czech News Center, a large collection of dailies, magazines and lifestyle and sport outlets. Petr Kellner is now poised to join or even overshadow these two.
It will be rather remarkable to follow the respective regulators in the EU, Romania and Slovenia, whose turn it is now to assess the impact of the CME acquisition on their respective markets, and to see whether these have any legal means to address concerns voiced by the Czech and European community of independent journalists.
In what can be a glimpse at how PPF views opposition to its investments, PPF’s chief boss regarding the media, Mlynář has already downplayed the role of the Bulgarian regulator (which in the past prevented PPF from entering Bulgarian market) in the afore-mentioned debate on the Czech public TV.
Mlynář called the Bulgarian regulator’s then decision-making process “below standard”, without giving any further evidence to support this, perhaps trying to capitalize on the stereotypes associated with the post-Communist and Balkan authorities. Needless to say, his statements make the future of media freedom in the Czech Republic look ever more questionable, and may have the same implications for Slovenia.