It is rare case that Czech national sues foreign publisher. Czech minister of finance, businessman Andrej Babiš announced he is considering to file a defamation claim against American Foreign Policy magazine. What is the subject matter of the dispute and would Andrej Babiš be successful in the Czech Republic in similar a case?
The article in question was published on 10th April in Foreign Policy with title Now the Czechs Have an Oligarch Problem, Too (available here). The article describes the political ambitions of Andrej Babis, country’s second-richest man and one of the most politically powerful billionaires in the world. His political success with Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) party due to distaste of citizens with corruption and long established parties. The article states that he is nicknamed “Babisconi”. It than follows with personal background of this man, especially two facts were mentioned in detail: Slovakia’s National Memory Institute published documents suggesting not only that Babis collaborated with Czechoslovakia’s secret police, the StB (under the codename Bures), but that he may have even worked for the Soviet KGB as well. In 2014, Babis successfully sued the National Memory Institute in a Bratislava court, claiming that he had been wrongly registered as an agent in StB files. But the institute is appealing. And secondly that Prime minister appointed him minister without requesting a lustration certificate as he was supposed to. As to how he became bilionaire, the article describes the evolution of his business activities in nineties regarding his overtaking of Czech state-controlled trade company. Than his other success when prime minister in 2001, Zeman oversaw the sale of Unipetrol, a state-owned chemical company, to Babis. Finally, the article mentions the scandal connected with the sale of Unipetrol to a Polish company in 2005 when high-ranking Polish officials reported that 42 million euros ($53 million) had been handed out in bribes on both sides of the border. In the Czech Republic nothing happened.
As to his media representation, the article states that he acquired MAFRA Media Group, which controls the best-selling Czech newspaper Mlada fronta DNES, and bought Radio Impuls, which has the largest listenership in the Czech Republic.
The article never used expression that suggest any direct accusation but merely describes what information is allready in the public domain and especially what is subject of public discussion or undisputed facts. Mr. Babis opposes these three statements:
- The rise of Babis — nicknamed “Babisconi,” after Italian billionaire Silvio Berlusconi — marks a turning point in his country’s post-communist history.
- In 2006, after Babis’s main business rival, Frantisek Mrazek, was found dead under mysterious circumstances, some suggested that Babis was to blame.
- Slovakia’s National Memory Institute, which preserves files dating from the country’s period under Nazi and communist rule, published documents suggesting not only that Babis collaborated with Czechoslovakia’s secret police, the StB (under the codename Bures), but that he may have even worked for the Soviet KGB.
Mr. Babis gave an interview to foreign correspondent of Hospodářské noviny (during his US visit) where he is expressing his opinion on the article and suggests that behind this article stand journalists “bastards” from the Czech Republic. He announced his intention to sue the magazine in the US and hire best American barrister because the magazine refused to apologize.
In the meantime Editor of Foreign Policy and authors of the article confirmed that they are not going to apologize for the article and that all what they wrote is true. They also have contacted with questions Mr. Babis and his office before the publication. Mr. Babis’s reaction was that the journalist did not explicitly introduced them as journalist.
Mr. Babiš claims to bring a defamation claim in the US. Let’s imagine the situation that he would file such a claim in the Czech Republic for exactly the same article according to the Czech law. Protection of personal rights is regulated in the Civil Code (for more previous posts). Damage to reputation (defamation) might happen only if the published statements are untrue or true but put in the circumstances that distorts the reality.
Did the magazine really publish accusations? Those information are widely discussed in the Czech Republic. His business activities in 90’s are of regular questioning. Slovakia’s National Memory Institute found documents that suggested his collaboration with StB. The proceedings against Slovakia’s National Memory Institute is still pending. Available even on Wiki in his profile. The article never used expression that suggest any direct accusation but merely describes what information is all ready in the public domain and especially what is subject of public discussion.
Mr. Babis is offended by the nickname and states nobody use it in the Czech Republic. How can he prove that nobody? Even in 2013 before election Blesk published an article about how foreign newspaper call him Babisconi. Our cartoons made the same fun. He was several times compared to Berlusconi and the term “Czech Berlusconi” is used since 2013. In the political debates he is constantly under pressure because of his connection to major media and industry.