It could be a contract which private firms in the Czech Republic annually sign thousands of. Home Credit, an international non-banking financial institution, of which Petr Kellner owns 91.12 percent, hired C&B Reputation Management, a PR agency. But this is where the story ceases to be run-of-the-mill. Instead of the agency helping to improve the media image of the company itself, which would be the normal course of events, it began to work on improving the Chinese Communist régime’s image in the Czech Republic.
Whereas Czech counter-intelligence (BIS) considers the expansion of Chinese influence in the Czech Republic to be one of the greatest security threats, Home Credit, which belongs to Petr Kellner, has paid to the PR agency for almost 2,000 hours of work to help those members of the Czech mass media who stand up for the Chinese régime and, conversely, to attack those who are critical of this undemocratic state. This is evident from documents that Aktuálně.cz has obtained from a source and whose authenticity it has verified using a number of methods.
Consequently, a network has been covertly established, which was coordinated by the PR agency hired by Home Credit. This network consists of politicians, economists, and independent China experts. A number of them may not necessarily have known their role in the Home Credit plans.
Almost 2,000 hours of PR in support of China
Good relations with China are of key importance to Kellner’s business. In 2014, his Home Credit, with the support of top-level Czech politicians, acquired a statewide license enabling the company to provide non-bank credit to people in this vast Communist country. By now, it has lent out a total of about 300 billion Czech crowns in China. But its business is entirely dependent on the whims of the undemocratic régime.
Information about Kellner’s campaign has come just after the gigantic PPF Group bought, for tens of billions of crowns, several television stations, in particular TV Nova, the most watched station in the Czech Republic. And it has repeatedly emphasized that it is not the intention of PPF to influence media reporting to the benefit of China.
"The claim that the purchase of CME [Central European Media Enterprises] is aimed at influencing politics is incorrect," wrote the company immediately after announcing the transaction on Twitter, adding that it was only seeking to increase the value of its investment.
Aktuálně.cz is now exposing a case in which the C&B agency, paid by Home Credit International a. s., a subsidiary of the PPF Group, has systematically and covertly sought to influence not only the mass media. According to documents, in the period from April to August 2019 people from C&B itemized a total of almost 2,000 hours of work. This is the latest information that Aktuálně.cz has. Home Credit International a. s. is the same company that also tried to enter into a partnership agreement with Charles University (Prague), but abandoned the idea after protests in academia.
The editors of Aktuálně.cz asked Milan Tománek, Group Head of Public Relations at Home Credit International, for comment, but he could not answer a number of questions about why Home Credit was signing a contract and whether the company didn’t consider individual demonstrated facts to be problematic.
"I do not quite understand what you are asking me or where the claims come from. Let me know what you are basing your claims on, I will familiarize myself with the background material, and will then be able to take a position. In general, if I am supposed to say something about something, I need to know what it is," Tománek said. Yet Aktuálně.cz had, based on the documents that the editors had at their disposal, already sent him a detailed description of what the PR agency had charged Home Credit for.
Note: On Tuesday, 10 December 2019, Home Credit International, through its spokesman Milan Tománek commented on the report by the Aktuálně.cz daily. "We categorically reject the claim that Home Credit was behind the creation of ‘clandestine networks’ to influence public opinion." He added that Home Credit would henceforth proceed and communicate on the matter only through its lawyers.
The itemized list of services rendered, which on dozens of pages describes in detail the work that the C&B public relations agency did for Home Credit, is signed by the director and minority owner Tomáš Sazima, who in the past had done PR work for, among others, LEV21, the political party of the former Czech Prime Minister and former Social Democrat Party chairman Jiří Paroubek, and for the Czechoslovak Social Democrats. The majority owner is Tomáš Jirsa, a former business partner of the current spokesman of PPF, Radim Ochvat, and a director of the company behind Info.cz, a news website. (Note: Jirsa resigned as a director of the company behind Info.cz shortly after publication of this article).
How much their firm was paid by Home Credit remains unclear. The documents contain the number of hours worked, but not the hourly rate, though the fees for such services are usually thousands of Czech crowns per hour.
When Aktuálně.cz personally confronted Sazima with the documents, he admitted to the whole campaign on the spot. But its aim, he said, was not to manipulate public opinion. "The point is to moderate the debate about China, to introduce relevant elements into it. To tilt the balance away from the extreme where it currently is. Because what there is about China and its reputation is disgusting," Sazima told the editors.
An "independent" Chinese Studies institute founded by Home Credit
Current events in China have been examined critically for a long time by a Czech project called Sinopsis, which is largely comprised of experts from the Faculty of Arts at Charles University. Sinopsis has also looked at the Chinese activities of PPF and has met with considerable displeasure of the company. PPF even sent a letter before action regarding a Sinopsis article that points to alleged tricks Home Credit uses when lending money to Chinese.
And as the Deník N newspaper reported last week, PPF put pressure on Charles University to distance itself from the Sinopsis project. The Faculty of Arts then came out firmly behind its China experts and a petition was even launched, which has already been signed by hundreds of public figures.
The chairman of the board of Home Credit, who is also its minority owner, Jiří Šmejc, wrote a personal letter to some of them. "Home Credit does not wish to enter into any specialist, philosophical or political-science debates. The only thing that we as a business entity are concerned with is the preservation of our good name and the prevention of situations when untrue information about our company, which we have left without comment, are again and again accepted by other mass media," said Šmejc.
It is now clear from the work records of the C&B public relations agency that it was PPF that, through Home Credit, clandestinely organized the establishment and activity of the Sinoskop Institute for Contemporary China (Sinoskop - Institut pro současnou Čínu) to compete with Sinopsis. According to the Company Register of the District Court of Prague, Sinoskop was officially established in June 2019 by the sinologist Vít Vojta, who has also worked as an interpreter for Czech politicians and presidents in China, including the current Czech President, Miloš Zeman, whom the owner of PPF, Petr Kellner, has also accompanied to negotiations in China.
Thanks to that work, Vojta today appears regularly as an independent China expert in the Czech mass media, giving interviews and writing commentary. He claims that, unlike Sinopsis, he is trying to promote a constructive view of China.
"A black-and-white world, with clear lines between good and evil, is convenient. But to work out a constructive approach and to search for uneasy solutions, all of that then falls by the wayside. It is easy to protest loudly and beat one’s chest as the guardian of the one and only truth," says Vojta, chastising his competitors in a recent article published on the Sinoskop website (http://www.sinoskop.cz).
Vojta once told Aktuálně.cz that the operation of the website is funded with earnings from his consulting and investment company.
According to the documents obtained by Aktuálně.cz, however, it was Home Credit that ensured Vojta all the services two months before the Sinoskop institute was registered in June 2019. Also according to the documents, it was Home Credit, with the help of C&B, which started up the Sinoskop website. Sazima admitted this part of the campaign to Aktuálně.cz, and says that Vojta "perhaps isn’t even aware of that. We didn’t worry about it. But he certainly knows that we are talking with Home Credit."
From the information obtained, it is clear that Home Credit also paid for the creation of the website logo, graphic design, and typeface, as well as the recruitment of people to work in the new institution. It also paid for the setting up of profiles on social networks - of Vojta and Sinoskop - and the design of the business cards that Sinoskop provided its employees with. After the website was launched, Home Credit also spent tens of thousands of Czech crowns for advertising on Facebook and Twitter, to promote Vojta’s website.
Vojta admits only having worked with Sazima, who, on behalf of C&B, signed the list of fees. But he does not admit knowing that his whole project, which he claims is independent, is being financed by a credit company with a fundamental interest in getting along well with the Communist régime of China. Vít Vojta is, however, unable to answer questions about who, then, covered the cost of the public-relations man Sazima, who, for instance, set up the interviews for Vojta with journalists. "Home Credit paid nothing for me. And as for what they pay Mr Sazima or his agency, go and ask them. Yes, it is true that I see Tomáš; we are friends and work together," Vojta told Aktuálně.cz.
An internal project of Home Credit
Internally, Home Credit ran the whole institute as its own project. The documents record the regular reports made to Kellner’s company, which describe the steps taken by C&B. "The emergence and creation of each output is coordinated by the service provider, who is also responsible for the copy-editing and actual publication of the articles," wrote C&B employees in the internal materials for the Home Credit management.
C&B employees list in detail also how they edited and modified contributions by other authors publishing on the Sinoskop website. It is important to emphasize that it is unclear whether any of them knew that Sinoskop was being formed by a PR agency paid for by Kellner.
Amongst these authors is, for example, Josef Žádník, a graduate of Zhejiang University, China. Today he is one of the senior managers of Deloitte. He is also one of the founders of the China C[DP4] zech Organization, which, according to its website, "aims to increase mutual understanding between Chinese and European students and organizations." It does so, for example, by organizing field trips to China.
"I wrote the article [(for Sinoskop]). As far as I know, the website belongs to Vít Vojta. He asked me whether I would write an article for him, so I did. We know each other personally because we were together about three times on missions to China with the president," Žádník told Aktuálně.cz. In reply to the straightforward question of whether he knew the C&B agency, Tomáš Jirsa, or Tomáš Sazima, he said that he did not.
Similarly, C&B listed fees to Home Credit also for an article by Lukáš Kovanda, Chief Economist of Czech Fund, part of the DRFG Investment Group of David Rusňák, who is the son-in-law of the current Minister of Finance, Alena Schillerová. Formerly a big donor to the ANO party, Rusňák frequently comments on China in a number of media outlets.
"Tomáš Jirsa and I have known each other for about 20 years. We are not in close contact. I am not aware that they [Jirsa and Sazima] would have told me explicitly that they were going to list my article as their work," replied Kovanda. "I send a number of commentaries on current events. It is then up to the mass media whether they accept them or not," Kovanda added, in reply to the question whether Jirsa or Sazima had somehow influenced his article.
Home Credit, according to the documents, also paid for time spent on the "cooperation agreement with Tomáš Munzi plus consultation about his article on the US-China trade war." Munzi is an economist and teaches at the University of Economics, Prague. His article, "Rozdvojené myšlení Západu" (The West’s Schizophrenic Thinking), was then published in Lidové noviny and on the Sinoskop website.
But as a result of its work, C&B, according to the documents, also charged for articles by the Czech ambassador to China, Vladimír Tomšík (who was appointed to the post thanks to his strong support for President Miloš Zeman) and by the Consul General to Hong Kong, Jan Juchelka.
A meeting with Balabán
In late August, C&B also charged for setting up a meeting with Miloš Balabán, the former head of the Czech-China Centre of Charles University. Balabán resigned when Aktuálně.cz brought attention to the fact the conference of a centre under the auspices of the rector of the university, Tomáš Zima, had been clandestinely funded by the Chinese Embassy. And the PR agency also charged Home Credit for Balabán’s article "Čínská ekologická naděje" (Chinese environmentalist hope), which was published in the Právo daily as well.
The section containing monitoring of what China publishes in the foreign mass media was even supposed be completely in the hands of C&B - despite the fact that Sinoskop presents itself as independent and not-for-profit and has even organized Internet crowdfunding for it.
"Our intention is to bring balance to the polarized debate about China in the Czech Republic. The one-dimensional image of this country as a hopeless Communist dictatorship or, alternatively, as the best trading partner is misleading. Please support our activity and independence," said Vojta in September, in his appeal to the public for funding.
Strangely, this fundraising was also organized by C&B in the pay of Home Credit. And it was a success. The website ultimately raised the half million crowns it had aimed for. The names of the donors, however, are confidential. It is thus unclear who donated the 240,000 Czech crowns in exchange for the private tour guide on the twelve-day trip to China or the 50,000 crowns for a workshop on how to negotiate with Chinese partners. Those were rewards offered to the donors.
According to the items charged for in the documents that Aktuálně.cz has at its disposal, that was just the beginning of C&B’s activity. The agency created the image not only of the institute, but also of Vojta. It also worked intensively on Vojta’s appearing in the mass media and on social networks. It invoiced Home Credit for, among other things, the "continuous training of Vít Vojta in work on social networks and consultation about reactions" or "preparing Vít Vojta for interviews in the mass media." For Home Credit’s money, as the itemized services in the documents show, publicity photos and videos of Vojta were made, in which, wielding a sword in the great outdoors, he demonstrates the Chinese martial art of Tai chi.
Furthermore, C&B reported to Home Credit that its public relations specialists regularly and clandestinely worked for Vojta. They wrote e-mail messages with which he then got in touch with editors or the management of individual mass media outlets. Home Credit paid for the "administration of Vít Vojta’s social networks during his stay in China." When someone came out critically against Sinoskop in the comments below his contributions, C&B, according to the documents, prepared replies and published them on a social network. Often, moreover, C&B alone prepared other contributions on a social network with matters of interest. And in a few cases Home Credit also paid for the drafting of e-mail messages that Vojta then sent out to journalists.
"They are professional recommendations to ensure that he would be understood on TV, since he has never talked there. But it is not as if anyone dictated to anyone what he should write," Sazima claims.
From April to August 2019, C&B, as a result of its work for Home Credit, listed dozens of appearances by Vojta as a China expert. For example, a May interview in the Týden weekly, part of the media group of Jaromír Soukup, was, according to C&B, accompanied by "copy-editing, communication with VV [Vít Vojta] and the journalist" and subsequently also a "meeting with the journalist ([DP6] thanking for the interview and obtaining a preview of the article before publication)."
When, in May, Votja’s commentary was published in MF DNES, the agency charged for it as custom tailoring - "Draft of the VV article ‘Hra s nulovým součtem’ (Zero-sum Game), consultation with VV, proposal of communication with journalists for VV." The public-relations specialists, paid by Home Credit, also prepared Vojta thoroughly for his appearance on Česká Televize and then assessed it for him.
Questions prepared by C&B for Luboš Xaver Veselý
In some cases, however, the PR agency claims in the documents that it provided journalists with considerably above-standard service, besides, for example, close collaboration with Luboš Xaver Veselý, the moderator of XTV (an "independent internet TV station") and of Český Rozhlas (Czech Radio), who invited Vít Vojta as a guest.
C&B charged Kellner’s Home Credit for "Working out a group of questions for a VV [Vít Vojta] interview on XTV, working out briefing material for an interview, consultation with VV, consultation with LXV [Luboš Xaver Veselý]". In the interview, Vojta, for example, repeatedly came out against those who criticized Jaromír Jágr’s trip to China, where, in spring 2019, he had been made "Ambassador of Chinese hockey," and accompanied President Miloš Zeman.
Veselý, however, does not deny having been involved in such collaboration. "I have known Mr Sazima since the days when he was doing the campaign for Jiří Paroubek. I also know Mr Jirsa, but for, say, five years I haven’t seen him. Definitely no PR agency prepared questions for my interviews. That is unacceptable," Veselý stated, adding that he does not even recall the May interview with Vojta. According to him, however, it does happen that his guests send in topics which they are prepared to talk about.
Sazima puts it more clearly: "Luboš is a bit lost on that topic. That is why we prepared types of question for him which might be attractive for the program," said the PR agent, who was paid by Home Credit.
In recent months, Vojta has also been given prominent space on the Info.cz website, part of the empire of the billionaires Daniel Křetínský and Patrik Tkáč. In recent months, however, the portal has been staffed with people close to both PPF and C&B (see the box). Aktuálně.cz has also found a number of articles strongly in favor of PPF.
It has, for example, attacked Sinopsis and Pavel Fischer. A former candidate for the Czech presidency, Fischer is currently Chairman of the Senate Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Security, and has regularly brought attention to threats linked to the Chinese Communist régime. These attacks have used the same arguments as Sinoskop uses to explain its work.
On the one side, stands, according to Tomáš Jirsa, the owner of the C&B public relations firm and an editor of Info.cz, the intrusive diplomacy of Miloš Zeman. "On the other side stands the influential group of activists, politically personified by Zeman’s unsuccessful former challenger for the presidency, Senator Pavel Fischer. That group is actually leading a holy war against everyone who does not condemn China as an unacceptable Communist dictatorship. Ideologically it is under the auspices of the Sinopsis think-tank and is full of the whole gallery of Zeman’s most implacable opponents," Jirsa wrote in his commentary, adding that the truth must be sought somewhere in the middle.
In reaction to what the Aktuálně.cz daily has discovered, Jirsa has said that he works in the C&B public relations firm exclusively as an owner and has no opportunity to comment on what it produces because he is not personally involved in it. "Indeed, as the director of Info.cz I have not shown favoritism towards any of the people or entities mentioned. As an author I am responsible for my commentary and, as the case may be, for the Insider podcasts. If you look at the China reports on Info.cz, they are for the most part extremely critical, though we seek to give space to everyone," Jirsa stated.
Links between PPF, the Info.cz website, and the C&B agency
• The C&B public relations agency is very close to PPF. The owner of C&B, Tomáš Jirsa, did business with Radim Ochvat, Head of Group Communications at PPF. Jirsa was also the official director of Info.cz, a news website which a number of pro-China articles have appeared on.
• In January 2019, Info.cz wrote that it is merging with Zdroj.cz, a news Web portal, under the name of the new publisher called Info.cz Online Media.
• A fifty percent share of the new publisher is said to belong to Křetínský and Tkáč under the name of the CMI company, which, for instance, owns Blesk, a tabloid daily. The other fifty percent belongs to the Fount company, owned up to that time by Zdroj.cz.
• In the past, the majority shareholder of Fount was Radim Ochvat, the current spokesman of PPF, who was a spokesman of the former president Václav Klaus, together with Tomáš Jirsa, the majority owner of C&B Reputation Management, a PR firm.
• According to the Company Register, however, the transaction did not take place. Info.cz is still owned solely by Křetínský and Tkáč’s CMI. The owner of the C&B public relations firm, Jirsa, however, is no longer a director of Info.cz Online Media, together with the editor-in-chief of Info.cz, Michal Půr. Both men regularly publish on Info.cz and together produce the Insider podcast, to which they invite guests. The Info.cz portal and C&B public relations, moreover, have their head offices in the same building.
• Jirsa formerly worked as the senior aide of Prague Mayor Pavel Bém (of the Civic Democratic Party or ODS) and as the head of PR for the Věci veřejné (Public Affairs) political party. In 2011, the Česká pozice server wrote that he was in charge of "guerrilla marketing," that is to say, a cell of paid internet commentators whose task was to influence commentary below articles on the website in favour of Vít Bárta, briefly, in 2013, the head of Věci veřejné.
• Jirsa is also close to the leadership of the Civic Democratic Party, of which he is a member in Prague 6. In September he participated in a meeting with the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, together with the Chairman of the Civic Democratic Party, Petr Fiala (see the photo below).
• He also worked with Václav Klaus Jr, who left the Civic Democratic Party and founded the Trikolóra (Tricolour) movement. According to the MF DNES daily, Jirsa was also a co-founder of Klaus Jr’s think-tank, the Centrum pro občanské svobody (Centre for Civil Liberties).