The President of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, crudely insulted reporters by showing off a replica AK-47 with the inscription “for journalists” — less than a week after an investigative journalist in Malta was killed by a car bomb.
Zeman brandished the fake assault rifle during a press conference on Friday, as Czechs voted to elect populist billionaire Andrej Babis as prime minister. Zeman said on Saturday that he would name Babis as the country’s prime minister. Critics however are concerned that Babis’ media dominance — he owns two of the country’s leading newspapers and a radio station — will lead to conflicts of interest. In addition to Babis’ success, the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) made surprising gains in the election, potentially positioning them as the country’s political kingmakers.
Zeman’s stunt on Friday aren’t the first time he’s made incendiary remarks towards the press. He has previously referred to journalists as “manure” and “hyenas.” In May, he shared a joke with Vladimir Putin that some of the journalists at an event he was at needed to be “liquidated” — a controversy which caused uproar in the central European country. In 2016, Zeman also urged Czechs to arm themselves against a potential “Super Holocaust” which would apparently be carried out by Muslims.
What makes Zeman’s actions so inappropriate this time though are that they take place less than a week after journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in Malta by a car bomb. Dubbed a “one-woman Wikileaks,” Galizia had led an investigation into the Panama Papers, and had recently revealed that Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Mucat, was connected with offshore companies and the sale of Maltese passports and payments from the Azerbajani government. Mucat for his part, denounced the killing and said it was a “barbaric attack on press freedom.”
Friends and colleagues of Daphne said the state had not provided the investigative journalist with adequate protection. “The state did not defend Daphne,” lawyer Andre Borg-Cardona told the Guardian. “This is a political murder because it clearly has a political context and the state did not protect a journalist who was in danger.”
Press freedom declined precipitously to a 13-year low in 2016, according to the think-tank Freedom House. A worrying new development focused on politicians in Eastern European democracies like Poland, Hungary, and now the Czech Republic, where they are said to be “undermining traditional media outlets, exerting their influence over public broadcasters, and raising the profile of friendly private outlets.”
“It is the far-reaching attacks on the news media and their place in a democratic society by Donald Trump…that fuels predictions of further setbacks in the years to come,” Freedom House’s Michael J. Abramowitz wrote. “No U.S. president in recent memory has shown greater contempt for the press than Trump.”