Zeman had received the mock gun as a gift during a visit to the western parts of the Czech Republic, and the president, known for his attacks against the media, appeared to enjoy it. “Look at the inscription,” a smiling Zeman said, according to local media outlets.
Human rights groups swiftly condemned the barely veiled threat against the journalists attending the conference on Friday, which came only days after a leading journalist in Malta was killed in a car bomb. The incident was featured on front pages across the continent and provoked outrage over attempts by governments to limit press freedom in Malta and elsewhere.
In the Czech Republic, Zeman so far mainly holds ceremonial powers and cannot press for legislative changes to restrict press freedom by himself, but he hopes that last weekend’s election could elevate his standing.
His longtime ally Andrej Babis, who heads the centrist-populist ANO movement, delivered a decisive win by securing 29.6 percent of the total votes in parliamentary elections, which began on Friday and ended Saturday. Babis’s victory will almost certainly make him the next Czech prime minister and could pave the way for a right-wing coalition. Liberals fear that the president could convince Babis to adopt some of his proposals, including a softer stance on Russia.
Babis became the country’s second-richest man partially by building his own media empire, which has raised concerns among Czech journalists over the future of independent media outlets there.
Journalists are under growing economic and political pressure in many eastern or central European nations like Poland and Hungary. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party has consolidated its power in recent years by essentially turning the country’s public broadcaster, TVP Info, into a mouthpiece of the government.
The government there also unsuccessfully attempted to limit the number of journalists allowed access to parliament. Growing self-censorship, free speech restrictions and interference in public media made the country plummet in Freedom House's Press Freedom Index, in which it dropped to being only “partly free” this year.
The Czech Republic is still considered to have a free press by Freedom House and fares well in similar rankings by the organization Reporters without Borders. In its most recent assessment, Freedom House cautioned that politicians “sometimes employ hostile rhetoric against media outlets,” but it also said that physical “attacks and harassment aimed at media houses or professionals are rare.”
Friday’s incident marked a new low point in the relations between the media and the Czech head of state, however, who routinely attacks journalists. In 2002, Zeman — who was at the time prime minister — compared the media to a “septic tank.”
“The Czech journalist is currently the dumbest creature on Earth,” he was quoted as saying.
Earlier this year, Zeman also told Russian President Vladimir Putin that there was a “need to liquidate” journalists, although Zeman later backtracked after critics pointed out accusations that the Russian government may be behind the murder of several reporters. Reporters without Borders ranks Russia 148th out of 180 countries worldwide in terms of press freedom, giving it a worse score than nations like Zimbabwe, Pakistan or Afghanistan. The organization blamed “draconian laws and website blocking,” along with a national and local crackdown on critics for the declining press freedom in Russia.
“I strongly dislike the comment, regardless if he said it to Putin or anybody else,” said Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek at the time.
Zeman defended those earlier comments by alleging that his critics lacked a sense of humor.