Czech police president Jiri Kolar is under fire for having said last week that bugging phone lines is "normal" police practice, which does not infringe on citizens' rights and should not be of any concern to people — as long as they abide by the law. Mr Kolar is right about one thing — electronic surveillance and wiretapping is widespread in the Czech Republic.
When asked by a journalist whether he worried that his own phone could be bugged, police president Jiri Kolar said he was "not at all troubled by the idea" because "when a person knows he's done nothing wrong, it makes no difference."
The top Czech policeman's ill-advised remarks came after it was revealed that police investigators had transcripts of telephone conversations between the leader of the main opposition Civic Democratic Party, Mirek Topolanek, and two men with ties to him under investigation for allegedly offering a bribe to a Zdenek Koristka, a Freedom Union deputy in the government coalition.
President Vaclav Klaus summoned the Interior Minister, Frantisek Bublan, for a meeting at Prague Castle at which he asked him to consider sacking the police president. Mr Klaus said he was deeply disturbed "by the fact that that the first among police officers" would downplay citizens' fundamental right to privacy as guaranteed by the Czech Constitution, a right the Czech president called "unassailable" in a democracy.
But Jiri Kolar is correct to say that bugging phone lines is "normal police practice" in the Czech Republic. According to research by the Max Plank Institute of Germany and data from the Czech parliamentary committee that monitors police wiretapping, Czech state security services and police now regularly monitor over 10,000 phone lines, a ten-fold increase since 1998.
In terms of wiretaps, that makes the Czech Republic the leader among developed countries with 100 out of every 100,000 inhabitants bugged, followed by Italy with 76, the Netherlands with 62 and France with 24. By comparison, only one person out of every 200,000 people living in the United States is likely to have a phone tapped.
Electronic surveillance, wiretapping, and the interception of mail are regulated under the Czech criminal process law and require a court order. A Czech judge can approve an initial police wiretap order for up to six months. The Czech security services need permission from the highest Czech courts and must prove that electronic surveillance is the only means to obtain the relevant information and that the person is a threat to the security of the Czech Republic.
The Civic Democrats, who last week called for an extraordinary session of Parliament to discuss police wiretapping around the so-called "Koristka affair," now say they want it on the agenda of the next regular session.
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