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Finance Minister Babiš does not want to be called oligarch

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Prague, April 26 (CTK) – Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babis (ANO) wrote to CTK today that he should not be ranked among the oligarchs who buy newspapers in order to solidify their influence, as was done by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in its regular report on the freedom of the media.

Babis wrote that he did not own the media, while it was the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) that could be defined as oligarchy.

Along with Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL), Babis’s ANO and the CSSD form the Czech coalition government.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (CSSD) tweeted that Babis no longer owned the media only due to the amendment to the conflict of interest law that was enacted against his will.

“This is so due to the law passed against his will, about which his deputies complain at the Constitutional Court (US),” he added.

“According to Wikipedia, oligarchy is concentration of power in the hands of a handful of people, which is the CSSD at present. Oligarchs are the people who support oligarchy and I am certainly not one of them,” Babis said in his press release.

The journalists should turn their attention to businessman Zdenek Bakala, owner of the Economia company that publishes the financial paper Hospodarske noviny (HN), and other big investors in the media, he added.

Babis has dismissed the idea that he is involved in the media business.

“I do not own or influence any media. I have never done this,” he added.

Until early February, Babis had the 100 percent stake in Agrofert, the biggest Czech agricultural company, employing 34,000 people.

The Agrofert holding includes the Mafra publisher issuing the national daily newspapers Mlada fronta Dnes (MfD) and Lidove noviny (LN). It also owns the free daily Metro, publishes the dailies TEMA and 5plus2 and operates the news portals and The group Mafra also owns the television stations OCKO, OCKO Gold and OCKO Expres.

In February, Babis transferred the shares of his firms, including Agrofert and Mafra, to trust funds.

He reacted so to an amendment to the conflict of interest law, dubbed Lex Babis, which curtails the access of the firms owned by government members to some form of state support. The legislation was then challenged by President Milos Zeman and ANO members of the Chamber of Deputies at the Constitutional Court, which has not yet dealt with it.

Babis, 62, is one of the richest Czechs. Last October, the Forbes magazine put his property’s value at 70 billion crowns and said Babis was the second richest businessman after PPF investment group owner Petr Kellner (255 billion) in the Czech Republic.

The Czech Euro weekly, too, said Babis is second richest, but it estimated the value of his property at up to 120 billion crowns.

The RSF report describes the situation in the Czech Republic as a rise of oligarchs.

The concentration of media ownership has reached a “critical level,” the report said.

It said oligarchs had been buying the papers in order to solidify their influence since 2008.

One of them, Andrej Babis, is at the same time the deputy prime minister, the finance minister and the owner of the most influential dailies, the report said.

Media expert Jan Potucek said that the “Berlusconisation” of Czech media, now underway due to Babis, had to be necessarily reflected in the evaluation of its independence in the RSF ranking.

“It is still uncommon in the world that a government member and leader of the governing party also owns influential media he can abuse to his own benefit,” Potucek said, pointing out former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, also a media tycoon.

($1 = 24.580 crowns)

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