- Hans Weber
- November 29, 2023
Czech minister warns over attacks by newspaper co-owned by Daniel Křetínský
The Czech energy minister has warned that attacks on him by a newspaper owned by the billionaire Daniel Křetínský should raise questions about how the businessman uses his media assets in other countries. Jozef Síkela told the Financial Times that he found it “strange” that Blesk newspaper had run a series of stories criticising the Czech government’s acquisition of NET4GAS, a gas pipeline operator that Křetínský’s EPH Group had also bid on. “If [Křetínský and his business partner Patrik Tkáč] will act in the same way also in the countries where they have a business and they own some media . . . It will be an interesting question for me,” he said. Křetínský, who built up his fortune in the energy business, made record profits last year as a result of Europe’s gas crisis and has been expanding his empire into media and retail. The Czech tycoon sold his stake in Le Monde last month but still owns several radio stations and magazines, including Elle. He has recently expressed interest in buying the UK’s Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times has revealed. EPH Group said: “We strictly and unequivocally reject the accusations made by minister Síkela. We fully respect the independent editorial policy; we do not determine topics but will not suppress them either.” “The media’s interest in the suspicious purchase of gas pipelines is certainly not determined by the ownership structure but by a natural curiosity about this massive state deal,” added Martina Říhová, chief executive of Czech News Center, publisher of Blesk. Opposition politicians and other media, including the website newstream.cz and weekly Echo24, have also criticised the deal. NET4GAS was bought by the Czech government through the state-owned energy company ČEPS for about €205mn plus debt in September. The company declared pre-tax profits of about €314mn in 2022 on €5.3bn revenue. It reported €13.6bn debt. Following the completion of the sale, Blesk ran several stories criticising Síkela for overspending on the indebted energy business, putting taxpayers on the hook for billions of Czech koruna due to the structure of the transaction. Other bidders, including Křetínský, offered significantly less than the government for the energy business, according to one person close to the deal. Blesk is the Czech Republic’s best read daily newspaper selling more than 600,000 copies per day on average, according to the Czech media agency MediaGuru. Síkela defended the deal as being crucial for the Czech Republic’s energy security. The country has historically had one of the most liberalised energy markets in the EU, which the government feared could be weaponised following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. NET4GAS operates about 4,000km of pipelines transporting gas to and from Germany and Slovakia and into the Czech Republic for domestic use. It previously had a contract with Gazprom that accounted for about three-quarters of its prewar revenues but the Russian energy group stopped making payments in January. Síkela said private ownership of the pipeline network made it vulnerable to similar moves. “I want to act in the best interest of Czech people. The best interest of the country must not be the same as the best interest of billionaires,” he said. Simone Tagliapietra, senior fellow at the think-tank Bruegel, said that several EU governments had intervened in energy markets as a result of the crisis. But, he warned, deals should “remain limited to matters of clear national security concern, so not to disrupt the efficient allocation of resources that markets can provide”. EPH previously bid for NET4GAS when it was sold by the German utility RWE in 2013 but was outbid by the German insurer Allianz and Canadian pension fund OMERS.