Prague puts limits on media freedom


This week’s Press Freedom Day was not – as the name suggests to some outside the business - a day for journalists to have off work.
Especially when European governments are still in the business of restricting their access to information. Michal Musil, a deputy editor of the best-selling daily newspaper in Czech Republic, was surfing his paper’s site Après-ski in Austria when he learned that the Czech parliament took the first step in its eventual passage of a law now known locally as “the muzzling law.”

No more holidays for Musil. The long-time editor has become a first-time crusader, working with the European Newspaper Publishers Association to rally against the law.

The lower house of the Czech parliament used an absolute majority to override the upper house and pass a law that criminalizes the publication of material gathered from police wiretaps. The law is dangerous because it prevents, for example, police departments from giving journalists information about potentially corrupted investigations. The law also bans the press from releasing the names of victims of violent crimes.

The punishment for breaking the law, which Czech president Vaclav Klaus signed in mid-February, is a five-year term in prison and a fine of around 170,000 euro.

Musil spoke with the EJC about his quest to see the law overturned.

EJC: What was your goal in speaking at the ALDE Civil Liberties Day last month?

Musil: I’m trying to get my message

“If they get away with this law, there will be others”

across and the message is that in the Czech Republic, an EU country, there is a newly passed law that limits freedom of speech and freedom of press in an unprecedented way.

… For us it really doesn’t matter who actually is going to raise the issue. The fact is the people from the ALDE have been quite supportive so far. On the other hand we are also having contacts with the EPPED group and they are also quite surprised, to put it mildly, surprised by the law. I’m trying to get the message across and actually anyone who offers help is welcome.

EJC: Are you looking for a particular kind of support from the EU or the European Parliament?

A: My friends and I from the European Newspaper Publishers Association, we’re actually talking and we’re having contacts with some MEPs and they are interested in the law and they also think the law is against, let’s say, general principles on which Europe and the European union is based. The general principles of freedom and liberties and they are trying to raise the issue within the European institutions and within the European Parliament itself.

EJC: Are you getting anywhere on this issue at home in Czech Republic?

A: We have actually exhausted any options at the Czech political level. We are trying actually to really get the message across. That’s the first thing, the practical thing. We really need to raise the issue for one important reason. We’re getting information from various sources in Czech politics that this is a sort of test.

“There is only one reason I’m involved. That is that I think it’s not right.”

So, if they get away with this law, there will be others, laws and other legal limits on freedom of the press. This is actually what we had to challenge. And secondly I think this is also quite dangerous for the rest of Europe. Because I don’t doubt there are politicians in different countries who would like to see similar laws in their countries. This is really dangerous for the freedom of the press at the European levels.

EJC: What kinds of action are you trying to spark?

A: We’re hoping to see an action taken by hopefully the European Parliament or perhaps the European Commission. However we know that the situation is a little complicated because the election day is coming and so the European Commission and the Parliament actually don’t have business as usual. And then what we are actually hoping for is that Czech politicians would actually realize what they supported, what they voted for, and they would start the process of changing the law or proposing amendments repealing the law.

… The fact is that actually we are close to an [parliamentary] election, too. The day is almost set for the beginning of October. This is a slight complication for the legislative process. But my experience is that if there was political will to change the law it could be done. It really depends on the political will.

But because the law was brought in by all the main parties and some smaller parties, our hopes are not linked to the outcome of the election, I’m afraid. This is also quite sad that this law is not the product of a political party. It’s a product of the political elite, the party leaderships in general.

EJC: The law came into force on 1 April. Will there be a legal challenge to test the validity in court?

A: We have information about some senators who are actually filing a complaint to the constitutional court and they are going to try to bring the case before the constitutional court. I don’t know the exact date of filing the complaint and of course I do not know really when the constitutional court would start hearing and judging the law. So yes, there is going to be a challenge – I think, to my knowledge. However this legal process can take months. Or perhaps even years.

EJC: Do you know the senators who will try to do this?

A: I know a name of one senator who is actually organizing this action, Petr Pithart. He’s a former dissident, he was active against the communist regime before 1989 and he is actually the person who has offered help to us also. He has said that he has enough senators to file the complaint. According to the Czech constitution there is a minimum number of senators required – I think it’s 17 senators – and he says that he has already the senators, the number. But really at this moment

I don’t know where actually the file is going to be tabled.

EJC: I know that the upper house of the Czech parliament did not support the legislation. Is there any reason why the lower house would still have passed this law?

A: I don’t of course have exact information but my idea, because paradoxically the law passed without any discussion in the lower house, in the plenary session. In a plenary session there was no discussion. But as far as I know the lower house is under much stronger political control by the party leadership, which is also associated with the voting system. The people, the MPs, the members of the lower house, are much more linked to the party leadership and to the committee and the party machinery. That’s just my understanding – because I have said, it’s quite hard to get any comment from the MPs on the law. That’s just my understanding, my explanation.

EJC: What makes this story especially interesting is that the Czech president supports this law. What do you make of his support?

A:In fact it’s not very surprising. The fact is that the president’s stance to the media has never been highly positive, to put it mildly. I’m really not extremely surprised by what he did.

EJC: How often do Czech journalists work with wiretaps? Is this happening a lot?

A: No. That’s actually what the legislators responsible for the law say but in fact this is quite a rare matter, a rare source of information. I would say it’s been something like twice a year, let’s say – just a rough estimation. The second point is that it’s really always been associated with politicians, public persons, public sector or a sector supported by public money such as football. And it’s really never been police wiretap as a source. It has never been used in some, let’s say, private lives – not for tabloid stories.

EJC: From your website it seemed like some specific cases prompted this law. Is that correct?

A: The legislator who proposed the law talked also about a concrete story, which had been published. The story is about a police wiretap concerning that the current interior minister used to lobby for a powerful businessman. And the businessman had simultaneously links to a notorious mafia boss. And the legislator did say that the law had been proposed not only because, but also because of, this story.

EJC: Are there any countries that have similar laws?

No. That’s why I am actually saying this law is completely unprecedented. To my knowledge there is even no such law in Russia. Although I don’t doubt that Mr. Putin and Mr. Medevev would be able to be keep journalists from publishing this kind of information from a wire-tap. This law is really unprecedented. To my knowledge you can publish information coming from police write-up if it’s in public interest in other countries. In other democratic, Western countries. That’s the first problem. The second problem is the extreme punishment that is part of the Czech law.

EJC: Is there any personal reason why you’ve gotten involved in this case?

A: There is only one reason I’m involved. That is that I think it’s not right. I do believe it’s not right. It really goes against the basic principles on which liberal democracy is based.

Honestly, for me this is quite a new situation just because I never thought I would have to talk to Czech legislators or even European legislators about a law that limits freedom of press. Actually I never hit on the idea that I would have to do something like that. For me it’s a really new experience and I must say yes, it’s an interesting experience. On the other hand I don’t think the price for the experience is really necessary. And by the price, I mean the law.