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A raid raises deeper press concerns in Czech Republic

When it comes to press freedom offenders, the Czech Republic is not among the countries that come to mind. So what happened to the main national television channel on March 11 left many flabbergasted. I arrived in Prague that day with a group of New York University graduate students to participate in a weeklong series of seminars with local journalists and media organizations. While we were discussing work conditions for Czech media, military police in ski masks were storming Czech Television offices.

Czech Television spokesman Ladislav Šticha declined comment to CPJ, but he told the online publication Aktuálně that military police visited the station the day before the raid and seized copies of a leaked 2007 military intelligence document that alleged corruption in the Defense Ministry. The raid the next day was heavy-handed, Šticha told Aktuálně, with police confiscating newsroom computers as well as personal items, lists of news sources, and papers unrelated to the 2007 case. The confiscated items were later returned. The station, Šticha said, filed an abuse-of-office complaint.

The case put a spotlight on the state of press freedom in the Czech Republic. Despite many improvements since the Cold War era, media freedom still has a ways to go. Interviews I conducted with journalists for the daily Hospodarske Noviny and the news site Transitions Online, as well as with Jiri Pehe, head of the Prague branch of New York University and a contributor to a variety of Czech news outlets, illustrate some of the challenges. Many Czech media outlets, they said, are controlled by political parties that use them as mouthpieces to further their own agendas; repressive media laws are still in effect; and there is a lack of strong judicial system to guarantee the freedom to report.

A law enacted in 2009, known among critics as the "muzzle law," is of particular concern. Created to ostensibly protect the interests of crime victims and persons under investigation, in practice the law has impeded journalists covering politicians accused of corruption, Adam Curny, senior editor of Hospodarske Noviny, told me. The muzzle law sets penalties of up to five years in prison or heavy monetary fines for those convicted.

Another issue journalists described is the politicization of the nation's broadcasting regulator, the Media Council. In theory, they said, the agency is supposed to include representatives of civic organizations, but in reality the nominations are politically controlled by parliament.

Compared to some countries in the region, where reporters experience intense harassment and attacks, the Czech Republic is fairly progressive in terms of media freedom. But scratch beneath the surface and you will find a number of obstacles used to control the press. The excessive actions by the military police against Czech Television are a reminder that the "usual suspects" are not always the ones committing press freedom violations.

(Reporting from Prague)

March 30, 2011 2:56 PM ET |

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