PRAGUE — A new law and a recent court ruling restricting press freedoms here have created an image of a country still learning the basics of democracy. It's as if the Czech Republic were a fledgling democracy struggling to reform after a communist past — rather than a country holding the European Union's rotating presidency.
Even though the country is nearly 20 years removed from communist rule, some old habits — like muzzling the press — die hard. Free press advocates including David Ondracka, executive director of the Czech branch of Transparency International, say the country is still trying to separate itself from its communist past.
“It is something that shows there is still a difference of political culture ... between Western Europe and here,” Ondracka said.
Within days of parliament passing a law that would criminalize the publishing of transcripts of police wiretaps, President Vaclav Klaus signed the measure into law, ignoring calls from free-press advocates at home and abroad to veto the measure.
In signing the bill, Klaus said he saw no conflict with the constitution — a claim the law's opponents challenge.
“We oppose the principle,” Ondracka said. “It is not correct to put more restrictions on the media. It creates insecurity in the system.”
It is not only a bad law, but a poorly constructed one at that, according to Ondracka.
“The chief problem is in the legislative process,” he said. “Instead of critical reviews from independent experts, or discussion, the law was quickly passed. The result is the law is of poor quality, so no one knows if it can be enforced.”
Any journalist charged under the new law would have to prove that publishing the wiretap transcript served a public good beyond a sensationalized attempt to sell more newspapers. But critics say the wording is so vague, and open to interpretation, that just about any case could be decided either way.
The one clear element of the law is the draconian punishments for anyone found guilty: a 5 million koruna fine ($225,000) or five years in jail.
As a former government minister, Ivan Pilip has a certain empathy for politicians frustrated by leaked information, but he says going after the media is the wrong approach.
“The real problem is the police and the courts,” he said. “Even more so because the police and courts are part of the state where politicians have oversight. They really should do everything to prevent the wiretaps from getting out from these authorities, because if a journalist can get them, than many other people can too, including some criminal people.”
Pilip says there are far better ways to protect wiretapped material than by going after journalists.
“You must fight against the causes,” he said. “So first of all, you have to decrease corruption; improve the system of control of the secret materials; make it more difficult even to allow police to wiretap another person; and then also improve the judicial process.”
In a separate, and somewhat bizarre, development, an appeals court upheld a lower court ruling, fining a Czech journalist 20,000 koruna ($900). The court found Sabina Slonkova guilty of infringing on individual privacy, even though the photos she obtained and published were taken in a public place and involved the Czech president's chief of staff. Jiri Weigl was filmed meeting with a prominent lobbyist in a hotel lobby just days before parliament was to vote on whether to re-elect Klaus.
The case, apparently, would not have gone to trial if journalist Slonkova had revealed the source of the photos provided to her, but she refused.
Olivier Basille leads the Europe desk for Reporters without Borders, a non-governmental organization that monitors government and judicial infringements on the free press around the world. The group's website called the ruling “completely baffling.”
“Protecting sources is the only way to get real information — behind the official statements,” Basille said in a phone interview from his office in Belgium. “The only way is to protect sources behind the scenes. If you reveal your sources you endanger your sources and you ruin your reputation for trustworthiness.”
The case is being appealed to the country's highest court, and Basille said he hopes the Czech Constitutional Court will see the obvious infringement on the free press and reverse the ruling. If not, he says his group will take the case to the European Court, where he's confident the ruling will be overturned. But he hopes it won't come to that, as the legal process could take five years to correct the situation.
Journalists have also been facing increasing difficulties in Italy, under Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing government. As a result, Reporters without Borders is now pushing for EU-wide laws protecting the rights of the press.
Clamping down on the media, “is not the best way to create a democracy,” he said. "We're not in China, we're in Europe.”
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