Zeman has never played nice with the Czech media but he went further than usual at this press conference in Prague on 20 October, on the eve of the country’s parliamentary elections. He was clearly trying to intimidate reporters with this mock Kalashnikov made of wood, with its “for journalists” inscription and an alcohol bottle instead of an ammunition clip.
“President Zeman is no angel but how far will his cynicism go?” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s EU-Balkans desk. “Brandishing a Kalashnikov, even a mock one, at journalists is unworthy of a European Union democracy and constitutes a grave and disturbing threat to media freedom.”
Just days ago, Zeman threatened a cameraman in a corridor of the Council of Europe building in Strasbourg, telling his escort: “Get rid of him for me or I’ll kill him.” Minutes later, Zeman’s spokesman said the president’s words were completely justified because the cameraman had been in the way.
At a meeting with Vladimir Putin in Beijing in May, he said they should “liquidate” journalists because “there are too many of them.” His robust language is never nuanced. He has repeatedly referred to journalists as “garbage” and “manure” since 2010.
The impact of his latest bad joke has not been improved by the fact that he has just asked an ally, Andrej Babis, a billionaire businessman who heads the populist party ANO, to form a government after winning the largest share of the vote in the 21 October parliamentary elections.
Dubbed “the Czech Trump,” the 63-year-old Babis is the country’s second richest man. His business empire includes leading media outlets and there is no shortage of examples of his meddling in their editorial policies.
Long regarded as a model of integration into the European Union, the Czech Republic is nowadays a source of growing concern about the threat to media freedom from the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few wealthy businessmen, a concern fuelled by President Zeman’s latest provocation.
The Czech Republic is ranked 23rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.