In a landmark ruling, the Prague Regional Court has ordered former Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš to issue a formal apology to investigative journalist Pavla Holcová. This follows false allegations he casually attributed to a message "received on WhatsApp" and subsequently posted on Facebook.
Back in April 2022, Babiš, the leader of the ANO movement, distributed a doctored image on his profile. This action was a direct response to the revelations of the Pandora Papers scandal, which revealed Babiš's acquisition of French real estate through offshore companies.
The controversial image showed Holcová accompanied by text suggesting a secret deal between her and philanthropist George Soros. The message read: "If Babiš even considers running for president, we've already conspired with Mr Soros to smear him with fabricated allegations a week before the elections. It worked last time. Mr Soros was visibly pleased!"
An initial court order had called for the post to be removed, stressing that the "criticism of the plaintiff couldn't possibly stimulate any real discussion. It was a clear reprisal for the Pandora Papers and was undoubtedly published with the intention of defaming the plaintiff". The appellate court not only upheld this verdict, but also ordered a formal apology. The final verdict was published by Investigace.cz, a platform led by Holcová.
While the creation of the image wasn't attributed to Babiš or his marketing ensemble, the court weighed in on the ex-prime minister's profound social influence. "As a former head of state, a presidential candidate, the leader of a prominent political group, a member of the Czech Parliament and the owner of several influential national media, he is a public figure with a pronounced influence on public opinion, which is reflected in his large number of followers," the court said.
It was only after the court opened the case that Babiš dismissed the post as a mere joke and exaggeration. But he refrained from moderating or tempering the ensuing discussions and heated attacks against Holcová on his profile.
"From someone of Babiš's political stature and sustained public presence, one would expect a modicum of professional diligence, especially with regard to the content and tone of the pieces he publishes. He should be aware of the central role of journalism in public discourse, as a cornerstone ensuring the smooth functioning of a democratic and lawful nation, and the need for increased protection of journalists from unjustified interference," the court added.
Andrej Babiš is now obliged to publish an apology on his Facebook page for one week, addressing the "unjustified violation of personal rights caused by the dissemination of a misleading post". The ex-prime minister must also compensate Pavla Holcová in full for the legal costs she incurred during the court case.