The issue of online disinformation and ‘fake news’ dominated the debates about the Czech news media last year. There has been also growing concern over the independence of public service media, which have become a target of increasing attacks from various populist political actors.
The steady growth of GDP (+4.5%, the second-highest in the EU) has been the main driver of increasing advertising expenditures, which are up 10% on last year. Television again took the biggest share (46%), with online ad spending recording the biggest annual growth.1
The circulation of Czech daily newspapers continued to decline, on average by -5.5%.2 This trend, while slowing down in the last several years, has been observed for over ten years now and in consequence most national dailies are today selling 45–65% fewer copies than in the mid-2000s.3 Last year, only one paper — the financial daily Hospodářské noviny – managed to slightly increase its circulation. On the other hand, some new print titles have been launched, either as spin-offs from already existing online news projects (such as the monthly Revue Forum or quarterly Info Lab) or within more upmarket segments (the financial bi-monthly E15 Premium, or a quarterly magazine Forbes Next). In light of the ongoing economic struggles, publishers have welcomed the change in the VAT rate for newspapers and magazines from 15% to 10%, agreed by Parliament despite the President’s opposition.
The television market saw the departure of the Swedish-based multinational company Modern Times Group (MTG) which has sold its 50% stake in the second-biggest commercial broadcaster TV Prima, in a move that signals the further withdrawal of foreign ownership from the Czech news media market and its replacement by domestic proprietors with main interests in other business sectors. There has been intense speculation that the number one player on the market, TV Nova, might soon follow a similar fate, after it emerged that its majority owner Time Warner is seeking to sell its acquisitions in Central Eastern Europe.
The leading web portal Seznam.cz, while continuing to lose market share to Google in search traffic, has been expanding its media business. Having launched the news site Seznam Zpravy in October 2016, it obtained a terrestrial TV licence for its own news channel Televize Seznam at the end of 2017. Other online competitors have attempted to increase their supply of original content as well, such as the internet TV Playtvak.cz which launched its own comedy series Single Lady.
The ranking of the top Czech news brands has not experienced much of a change in recent years; among the exceptions has been TV Barrandov, that has seen a notable rise in the amount of regular users (from 12% in 2015 to 19% this year). This has been arguably facilitated by TV Barrandov’s ever more partisan style of broadcasting, pandering to voters of populist and extreme right-wing parties and politicians. At the same time, the public service media have been subject to growing verbal attacks, including from President Miloš Zeman as well as the media mogul Andrej Babiš, who has been prime minister since November 2017. Following last year’s parliamentary elections, which strengthened the position of populist parties, there have been increasing concerns over the attempts to interfere with the political independence of public service broadcasting. Despite these challenges, the public service television and radio continue to be among the most used and trusted news brands, and keep expanding their news services, particularly Czech Radio which in April 2017 launched a specialised online news portal iRozhlas.cz.
Partisan and alternative sites have continued to maintain their active presence in the Czech online news ecosystem — partly as a result of exposure via social media. Many of these sites have been labelled as disinformation websites by various NGOs as well as by the Centre against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, set up by the Ministry of Interior in 2016. While Parlamentnilisty.cz (17%) attracts as many weekly online users as some mainstream news sites, the reach of the other web projects (pursuing anti-EU, pro-Russian, and a generally anti-liberal agenda), including Russian-funded Sputnik.cz (2%), remains limited.
The election campaigns in late 2017 saw heightened activity of disinformation and partisan websites, as well as hoaxes circulating on social media. In a pioneering attempt to target the financial incentives driving fake news, Seznam.cz announced in August 2017 that it was going to exclude known disinformation websites from its online ad service Sklik. Following a backlash, the company withdrew the plan, however it has now introduced new rules that ads will no longer appear on dubious sites on a blacklist maintained by an independent database Konšpirátori.sk.
Online media have continued to dominate as sources of news, while social media have gained further ground, widening the distance from print.
The low trust in news media is generally attributed to increasing polarisation, to the impact of online disinformation, particularly related to partisan websites with links to Russian-based sources or funders, as well as to the fact that most mainstream news media are in the hands of oligarchs and business groups, with an adverse effect on perceived editorial autonomy.