Thousands of Czechs have taken to the streets of the capital, Prague, in defiance of a recent attack on local independent media by the country’s recently re-elected President Milos Zeman.
Speaking during his inauguration last week at Prague Castle, the pro-Russian, anti-migrant Zeman criticised the Czech media by name, accusing them of favouritism during the recent elections and general bias.
The comments prompted several opposition members of parliament in attendance to leave the ceremony.
Zeman’s remarks came less than two weeks after 27-year-old Slovakian investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiance Martina Kusnirova were shot dead in their home outside the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, in an assassination suspected to be connected to his work.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia, formerly unified as Czechoslovakia, split 25 years ago, but the two nations remain close.
Gathering in Prague’s Wenceslas Square on Wednesday evening – the location of massive protests against communism during the 1989 Velvet Revolution – flag-waving Czechs criticised Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babis, chanting “shame” and jingling their keys, a gesture used during communism that symbolises the unlocking of doors as they swept Communists from power.
“I don’t agree what our president is saying about the media,” said Klara Krivankova, a 23-year-old biology student.
“I think it can make a dangerous atmosphere in our republic, which can be dangerous for the media as well.”
Specifically, Zeman attacked the independent Czech Television, a public news provider whose director is appointed by a council elected by parliament.
They condemned Zeman’s speech as unacceptable and an attack on its independence.
“Our president is attacking the media and is constantly talking about media like it is biased, but it is not true,” said 30-year-old protester Vladimir Nedved.
“This is the first television in our country, and it is an attack on the freedom of this country.”
Lighting candles and displaying pictures, the demonstrators honoured the slain Slovak journalist in a moment of silence while holding up their lit mobile phones.
Along with Czech Television, several media outlets also denounced Zeman, who in October famously offended reporters by brandishing a replica Kalashnikov inscribed with the words “for journalists”.
“The journalists of our papers do not look for any scoops, but for the truth. They will continue with what they do in all conscience,” Roman Latuske, general director of the publisher Economia, told the Czech News Agency last week.
Joining the protesters were also several members of parliament who have become increasingly worried about the state of free media in the central European nation where several influential newspapers are now owned by the political and business elite, including Prime Minister Babis.
“[Prime Minister Babis] owns quite a big part of our media and this is one of the many conflicts of interest that he currently has,” said Marketa Adamova, member of parliament and deputy chairman of the centre-right TOP 09 party.
She also said that she was afraid that the situation might get worse with a parliamentary vote coming up to establish the board of Czech Television. Currently, Babis’ ANO party has minority control of the Czech parliament.
“It’s similar to Poland or Hungary where the government quite easily can control their television, and it is not independent any more,” she said.