Czech media get to grips with stringent new reporting rules

01-04-2009

A stringent new media law has just taken effect in the Czech Republic, restricting the use of official information, including telephone wire-taps. Media owners, editors and journalists are united in their opposition to what has been dubbed the “muzzling law”: they say it is an unprecedented break with the country’s liberal press rules.

The new media law took effect on April 1 in the face of protests from local and worldwide media organisations and companies.

The general manager of the publisher of one of the most respected Czech dailies, Hospodářské noviny, as well as the country’s representative on the World Association of Newspapers, Michal Klíma, says it represents a real curb on reporting: “Well I think it is a real danger for the freedom of the press at least in one field and that is information about criminal cases and about police investigations and so on.”

The measure was brought in after transcripts of police telephone bugs used in police investigations of links between the criminal underworld and politicians were leaked.

But the sledgehammer measure goes much further than just banning journalists from using such information. Mr Klíma explains: “We will not be able to publish names of victims of criminal cases, even in cases where they are cases of people who are well known and there is public interest for knowledge of these names.”

The daily Mladá Fronta Dnes pointed out on Wednesday that the new law would have meant that media would have been prevented from releasing the name of former Prague Spring Communist leader and post-Communist speaker of the assembly Alexander Dubček after he was killed in a car crash in 1992, unless he had given prior consent in writing.

For those who defy the law, the punishments are unprecedented, according to Mr Klíma: “What I think is the worst of the whole case is the really draconian penalties. Because when someone publishes such information, he, or she, can be sent to prison for five years. I think that no such cases can be found in democratic countries.”

Mr. Klíma believes the law, which had broad cross-party support, was brought by politicians to protect themselves for being tarnished by leaks of information about the many criminal and corruption investigations that are launched in the Czech Republic but somehow seem to get bogged down on the way and never reach a conclusion.

“I think that the reason why it started was that there were criminal cases where politicians were somehow involved. These cases were investigated for a long time. And because the investigators, the police people, were influenced by some politicians not to hurry in the investigation, or maybe to stop it or so, so they probably gave some information to journalists to have some public pressure. So this is the answer from politicians,” he explained.

The Czech media is now pinning its hopes on lawmakers in the upper house, the Senate, challenging the new media measure in the Constitutional Court. But pending such a step they will have to live with the new law or face the consequences.

01-04-2009