[The richest Slovak businessman is also active in the Czech Republic, both in business and as finance minister and chairman of the ANO 2011 party.]
Babiš faces the biggest scandal so far; Babiš in a nest; Disappointment with Babiš – these are headlines of stories which recently informed on the scandal that has shattered the Czech political scene, broke by three influential dailies in Slovakia: Denník N, SME and Pravda. The fourth influential daily – Hospodárske Noviny, which happens to be owned by billionaire Babiš – has so far not written a single word about the possible subsidy fraud worth two million euros in Babiš’ firm “Čapí hnízdo” (Stork’s Nest).
Is this a coincidence, or does HN do extra work for its owner? To outline the answer, we tried to look at how Slovak dailies cover the richest Slovak and the Czech politician.
The rich, likeable man Babiš bought HN three years ago. One of the changes introduced by the new management was abolishing the foreign desk, as well as a stable page covering events abroad. This can be one of the reasons why the daily brings less information about some scandals in Czech politics than the remaining dailies.
Despite this, HN mentioned Babiš in more than a hundred stories since January 2014. Similarly as in other media, most of them seemed more or less neutral in HN. However, their owner was portrayed positively in every sixth story; for comparison – in Slovak tabloid dailies, Nový čas and Plus 1 deň, this was true for every sixteenth story, while dailies Šport, Sme and Denník N avoided praising Babiš completely.
It has to be stressed that positive mentions about him in HN were mostly not clearly PR stories. The only exception seems to be direct interviews with the newspaper’s owner, like for example the one from May 2014. Already its headline – I am a Politician by Mistake, I am not the Right Type for That loosely connects to the election campaign’s slogan of ANO “We Are not Like Politicians, We Work Hard.”
In the initial part, the author described Babiš as one of the most influential people in central Europe; while avoiding the conflict of interests which he brought about when accepting the position of finance minister. Moreover, he got the chance to react to the accusation that he uses media to his advantage. The question was as follows: “After having bought the Czech publishing house Mafra (part of which is also the HN daily), you faced criticism that you will use media to your advantage. You claim this is not the case.” After such “pressure”, Babiš could sigh with relief. The questions that followed are the dream-of every politician; for example: “What is your priority as a minister?”
Silence is golden
When comparing stories mentioning Babiš, HN appears a bit better. Most negative mentions about him appeared in Denník N (60 percent of stories) and Sme (40 percent). Far behind are HN where negative mention was recorded in 11 out of 104 stories. Their authors include also journalists who have left the economic daily in the meantime.
One of them was even the columnist Arpád Soltész who several times gently picked at Babiš in his regular column. In one of them, he for instance mocks the owner of the food trust that he can win over Czech President Miloš Zeman with his “sausages”.
A more amiable approach of HN towards its owner could be seen not just in the number of positive or negative mentions, but often also in what the newspaper plays down or keeps silent about.
We noticed this approach in HN during several scandals which were covered more critically by other influential media, as well as rendering them more space. This can be illustrated by the coverage of one of Babiš’s scandals with Slovak connection – the dispute with the Nation’s Memory Institute (ÚPN) about his alleged cooperation with the communist-time secret service, ŠtB.
Campaign of enemies
Ultimately, Babiš succeeded in the dispute and won the ruling that he was not an ŠtB agent in the past. HN wrote one authorial story related to the issue, from the trial in January 2014, and apart from this, it only published two more news shorts from newswires on back pages, and one short authorial story in July about Babiš’ victory. The court case did not make it to the cover page a single time, and it did not get a single opinion piece in the paper.
In the above-mentioned interview with Babiš, the HN journalist posed a single – indirect – question: “Because according to the Nation’s Memory Institute, you were an ŠtB agent?” Babiš’s answer: “I wasn’t, this is what my enemies keep spreading.” The journalist seemed content with this answer; as she did not return to the issue in the interview.
Compared to four stories on the scandal published by HN, Sme focused on it in 26 pieces. With one exception from a newswire, all others were made by the daily’s reporters. The case four times appeared on the front page. Sme even published seven critical opinion pieces. Besides reports from the trials, Sme also offered several investigative stories in which reporter Matúš Burčík worked with ÚPN files. For example in the story ŠtB sa opierala o Babiša (ŠtB leaned on Babiš), he e.g. pointed to the discrepancies in the testimonies of the prosecutor’s key witness, Andrej Kuľha, in court.
Similarly, HN informed also on Babiš’s companies and economic interests. His chemical factory Duslo Šaľa received in Slovakia in 2014 a ten-year tax holiday worth a total of €58 million. The plant was to invest the sum into modernisation of the production of ammonia. Neither Economy Ministry, nor Duslo Šaľa informed on the tax relief; it was Czech journalists who uncovered it.
How did HN master this issue? Their readers were not able to read about criticism which accompanied the investment stimulus for the company. The daily failed to notice it. HN offered a single, brief news piece signed by the abbreviation RED (redakcia, meaning editorial staff) in June 2014 when the scandal was widely publicised. It was published on July 10, on page four, in the column V skratke / In Short, with the headline Duslo šaľa je blízko daňovým úľavám / Duslo Šaľa is Close to Tax Reliefs. Apart from the monitoring of Czech website E.15, which was the first to break the story, it contained a brief statement of Duslo Šaľa CEO Peter Bláha: “We asked for investment stimulus, and the European Commission will be deciding on it. It will assess whether this is not unallowed support.”
Moreover, HN wrote erroneously in this story that “the plant does not get the tax holiday just for free; it rather plans to create hundreds of jobs”. Actually, the condition for receiving investment stimulus was not to employ new people – which was also subject to criticism. Duslo Šaľa pledged not to fire the current employees. The only critical text published by HN concerning the scandal was the opinion piece of former finance minister Ivan Mikloš from January 12, 2015, i.e. six months after the subsidy was granted and the scandal already faded away.
The neglected empire as the economic daily fails to be critical – or even neutral from the news point of view – in issues which are related to its owner. Instead, it often opts for keeping silent. It took such a stance also in the case “špekáčiky” [special type of sausage meant for grilling, frying or roasting]. Slovak Agriculture Minister Ľubomír Jahnátek in 2014 proposed that špekáčiky could be produced without meat, only from poultry in form of mechanically separated meat (MSM), mechanically recovered/reclaimed meat (MRM), or mechanically deboned meat (MDM). The idea came from the Union of Slovak Poulterers which represents a number of poultry-processing plants, including the Hyza plant from Babiš’ group Agrofert.
After protest from food-processing companies and producers of traditional špekáčiky who make them by adding pork and beef, Jahnátek withdrew his proposal. The scandal attracted attention of several media, among others also Sme, or the news website Aktuálne.sk. In HN, it received no space. The daily also did not inform on the fire which struck in October 2015 one of the fattening halls of the Hyza company, in which 20,000 chickens died. The daily’s readers also did not learn that in the beginning of this year, Hyza called on consumers to return to shops the poultry stemming from breeding points where salmonella was found.
Although Andrej Babiš operates mainly in the Czech Republic, his firms play a key role in several industrial branches also in Slovakia. Despite this, Hospodárske Noviny did not bring a single story since early 2014 about his Hyza company which belongs among the biggest poultry processing companies in the country, as well as across Europe. HN also did not mention the bakery company Penam which is an important player on the bread market. And about Duslo Šaľa, they informed only concerning the investment in an ammonia-producing hall. This is surprising in a newspaper focused on the economy.
After the Penta investment group entered several influential media in 2014, the notion of oligarchisation of media has been debated more also in Slovakia. Especially the Sme daily, but also the Trend weekly brought several critical stories towards Penta’s steps, and thus tired to demonstrate to readers their independence of their owner. HN, also thanks to their owner being engaged mostly in the Czech Republic, remained slightly distanced from this debate.
The daily is the smallest national daily (average sale rate for last year is an average of 12,175 copies), but its social impact is not marginal. Hospodárske Noviny is, according to the findings of Transparency International (TI), also the most subscribed paper in public administration. In a sample of important state offices, public firms and self-administrations, TI found HN subscriptions in 181 cases, while Pravda had 129 subscriptions and Sme 121.
The impact of billionaire Babiš on his media was confronted more by Czechs. His media campaign started already in June 2013 when he bought the significant Czech publishing house MAFRA which published, among other things, dailies Mladá Fronta Dnes and Lidové Noviny. He became a media mogul and after success in parliamentary election in October 2013, media started to liken him to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Former editor of MF Dnes and Lidové noviny, Pavel Šafr, wrote that Babiš represents a threat to freedom in media and a kind of soft-normalisation [ an apparent hint to communist-time effort at suppressing all reformist and anti-Soviet efforts after crackdown on “Socialism with a Human Face in 1960’s Czechoslovakia]. Šafr laid out an analysis of the contents of two dailies, a year-and-a-half before Babiš bought them, and six months afterwards. According to it, the number of positive news about the mogul increased in MF Dnes from 30 in the first phase to 202 in the second one; while in Lidové Noviny, the increase was from 20 to 164.
In Slovakia, this situation has not been so evident. However, our analysis implies that in three years with Andrej Babiš, Hospodárske Noviny failed to struggle free of this cramp. On one hand, it consequently informs on its ownership conflict everywhere it is mentioned. On the other hand, Babiš can be sure that no criticism will come from his newspaper. In return, “the Czech Berlusconi” does not require his Slovak paper to do any extra work which would help his business or political career. It is enough for him to be almost invisible for the daily.
Transparency International Slovensko
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8. Apr 2016 at 10:31 | Ľuboš Kostelanský, Michal Piško