The Media Today

A helicopter crash in Alaska reverberates through Europe’s media

March 31, 2021

On Saturday evening, a helicopter shuttling guides and guests on a backcountry heli-skiing excursion in Alaska came down. Five of the six people on board were killed. The story of the tragic accident scarcely featured in the US national news cycle, but in the Czech Republic, it was huge news—Petr Kellner, by far the country’s wealthiest man, was among the victims. As of last year, Kellner sat in sixty-eighth place globally on Forbes’s billionaires list, level with Rupert Murdoch and his family. Unlike Murdoch, Kellner was not principally a media magnate—the investment firm that he founded amid the privatization rush of the post-Communist era has had interests in insurance, consumer finance, telecoms, and real estate—but he had recently made moves in that direction. In October, his firm paid the US media giant WarnerMedia, now owned by AT&T, more than a billion dollars to acquire its majority stake in Central European Media Enterprises, the parent company of the influential Czech TV station Nova and thirty or so other networks spanning that country, neighboring Slovakia, and Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Kellner insisted that he would be a “responsible” owner of the networks—but fears about his intentions abounded regardless. Around the time of the takeover, press-freedom groups including Reporters Without Borders and the International Press Institute urged Kellner to respect editorial independence, and noted potential conflicts with his business dealings, particularly in China. (Kellner also had deep business ties to Russia.) Writing separately, Michal Klíma, of IPI’s Czech branch, situated these concerns in a broader context: in recent years, other rich local businessmen have bought swaths of the Czech press from foreign owners, and sometimes used their control to dubious ends. In 2013, a rising politician named Andrej Babiš acquired the publisher of two of the Czech Republic’s biggest newspapers, which have since covered him favorably. He is now the Czech prime minister. Since 2014, Daniel Křetínský, the country’s third-richest man (per Forbes), has owned newspapers and sites including the well-read tabloid Blesk; journalists at his titles have said that Křetínský does not interfere with their work, though in 2019, a right-wing site that he owns was linked to a pro-China PR campaign funded, ultimately, by one of Kellner’s companies. Kellner was, variously, a mentor and rival to Křetínský (who has also been romantically involved with Kellner’s daughter), and was close, too, to Miloš Zeman, the Czech president. Robert Brestan, a Czech journalist, told the French reporter Jérôme Lefilliâtre that, in his view, Kellner decided to invest in media, at least in part, with the goal of softening his negative image as a backroom political heavyweight.

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The media footprint of Czech oligarchs hasn’t been confined to the country’s borders: Křetínský has extensive interests in the French press, including a stake in Le Monde; according to Just Security, Kellner was recently involved in telecoms dealings in Serbia that threatened the funding of a major independent news outlet. Nor does the trend of growing oligarchic media control exclusively originate in the Czech Republic—similar dynamics have been at work across Central and Eastern Europe. In 2014, Penta, an investment group that also owns Czech outlets, bought out a German company’s stake in SME, a leading independent newspaper in Slovakia. Its top editor, Matúš Kostolný, quit in protest; his successor, Beata Balogová, told me in 2019 that while the “the very toxic oligarchic group” only owns a minority stake, SME has still had to work hard to retain its independence. Late last year, one of Penta’s founding partners—who is also Slovakia’s second-richest man—was arrested on corruption charges.

While oligarchs like Kellner and Křetínský made their fortunes independently (at least in the simplest sense of the word), powerful media players in other countries owe their success more directly to government patronage. In Hungary, businessmen close to Viktor Orbán, the country’s authoritarian prime minister, have bought up huge swaths of the press; last summer, one Orbán ally took over the advertising arm of Index, a widely-read independent news site, leading to the firing of its editor, Szabolcs Dull, and mass staff resignations in protest. Andras Petho, a leading Hungarian journalist, told me yesterday that Index’s coverage is now “much friendlier with the government.” Again, these dynamics are not purely domestic: investors with ties to Orbán have recently been involved in media acquisitions in North Macedonia and in Slovenia, where the prime minister, Janez Janša, is a close Orbán ally and has quite literally declared “war with the media.” In the fall, Janša openly rejoiced when Kellner took control of the network 24UR as part of his deal with WarnerMedia; shortly thereafter, Janša and Kellner reportedly met in person. Also last year, Poland’s ruling far-right Law and Justice Party accused foreign-owned media companies of election meddling, principally on behalf of the German government, and pledged to bring such outlets under domestic control. “The media in Poland,” Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice, said, after his party won, “should be Polish.” This month, a state-run oil refiner bought Polska Press, a regional newspaper chain that was previously German-owned.

Press freedom in many of these countries has also been battered by blunt state power: last month, for example, Klubrádió, an independent radio station in Hungary, was forced off the air by the country’s politically-appointed Media Council and a court ruling. Particularly since the rise of Trump, international media-watchers have often focused on such instances of government repression around the world; the more insidious, incestuous forces of consolidated media ownership—often driven by figures, like Kellner, who tried to live outside of the public eye—have sometimes received a lesser focus. When Klíma, of IPI, wrote last year, it was too early to say what impact Kellner may or may not have had on his networks’ independence; now, following the tragedy in Alaska, we’ll never know. His company’s media footprint, however, will still demand careful scrutiny. In the cases outlined above, the need for ongoing vigilance is obvious.

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Across Central and Eastern Europe, independent journalists are working tirelessly to apply such scrutiny, and to hold accountable governments that, in many cases, are spiraling rapidly toward authoritarianism. Last month, independent outlets in Poland intentionally went dark, taking programs off air and printing black front pages in protest of a new advertising tax that, they said, would cripple them financially. (Officials subsequently promised to amend the proposal.) And Petho, in Hungary, told me yesterday that both his site, Direkt36, and a new venture launched by former staffers at Index have, over the past year, seen growing support from readers. “More and more people realize that independent media won’t survive without their financial contribution,” Petho said. The situation, he added, “is not that hopeless.”

Below, more on press freedom in Central and Eastern Europe:

  • Mister K: A year ago, I interviewed Lefilliâtre, the French journalist, about Mister K, his new book investigating the business interests and personal motives of Křetínský. “When you reconstruct the timeline of his investments in the media, you understand that there’s an intention there that goes beyond journalism and the desire to support the press,” Lefilliâtre told me, of Křetínský’s dealings in the French media industry. “It could also be the case that he wants to support the press, but that doesn’t preclude his primary reason for investing in the media being to support his economic interests.”
  • “War with the media”: Last month, Politico’s Lili Bayer tracked Janša’s war on the press in Slovenia. He “has referred to the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) as a ‘national disgrace,’” Bayer writes, and “accused public broadcasting organization Radiotelevizija Slovenija (RTV) of spreading ‘lies’ and misleading the public, tweeting that ‘obviously there are too many of you and you are paid too well.’” He has also proposed new laws that would “boost state influence over STA and reduce funding for RTV.” Earlier this month, six press-freedom groups urged the European Union to condemn Janša.
  • A murder: Three years ago last month, Ján Kuciak, an investigative reporter who had been reporting on the dealings of oligarchs in Slovakia, and Martina Kušnírová, his fiancée, were murdered at their home. Prior to the killings, Marián Kočner, a businessman with close ties to the country’s political elite, threatened Kuciak; Kočner was subsequently charged with ordering Kuciak’s murder, but last year, he was acquitted. (Kočner was convicted in a separate fraud case involving an American-owned TV station; three other people have been convicted of involvement in Kuciak’s murder.) A year ago, Igor Matovic, an anti-corruption fighter, became Slovakia’s prime minister, riding, as Balkan Insight put it, “a wave of public disillusionment with political elites” that intensified after Kuciak’s murder, and previously helped Zuzana Čaputová, a liberal outsider, win election as president. Yesterday, however, Matovic resigned amid a scandal linked to vaccine procurement from Russia.
  • Belarus: Since March 18, authorities in Belarus have arrested at least sixteen journalists and fined at least three who recently covered ongoing protests against the dictatorial rule of Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s president; according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, one of those arrested, the political commentator Andrzej Poczobut, remains in detention. I wrote about the crackdown on press freedom in Belarus last year.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.