Attacks on the Press 1999: Czech Republic

The Czech Republic became a member of NATO in March and continues to look westward toward EU membership in the next few years. The country is moving steadily toward stability and respect for democratic rights, but its overall good record on press freedom was tarnished by the new government’s increasingly hostile attitude toward the press.

Prime Minister Milos Zeman, whose Social Democratic Party assumed power following early elections in June 1998, launched an assault on media freedoms with a press bill that would have imposed serious constraints on the practice of journalism. Czech media are, comparatively, among the most professional and vibrant in all former Eastern Bloc countries. Combined with vigorous pressure from international press freedom groups and multinational bodies, their protests eventually persuaded Parliament to tone down the legislation.

As originally proposed, the bill allowed any citizen to bring charges against a print organization for spreading hatred aimed at any group, defined by race, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation. Fines or suspensions could be imposed on publications found guilty in the courts. The draft bill also required media outlets to publish responses from citizens or officials who felt their reputations had been damaged by a news report, even if the facts in the original article were correct. The bill’s critics charged that compelling publication was as much censorship as restricting publication and that from a practical standpoint the “right to reply” provision would lead to damaging and lengthy legal proceedings.

In early December, the lower house of Parliament passed an amended version of the heavily contested bill. The new draft omitted fines or suspensions for publications that spread racial hatred. It also limited the right of response to incorrect information. The watered-down wording of the “right to reply” concept was being debated in the Chamber of Deputies at year’s end. From there it will move to the Senate and finally to President Vaclav Havel, who has veto power over all proposed legislation.

In December, the government’s hostile attitude toward the press apparently emboldened Czech officials to launch a hitherto rare criminal prosecution, against a broadcast journalist in Olomouc. The state attorney’s office charged Zdenek Zukal with three counts of spreading “false information” against local law-enforcement officials in a series of broadcasts on TV Nova in April 1997. Prior to the prosecution, the government had waged a nearly three-year campaign to prosecute Zukal for his reports on official corruption.

December 13
Zdenek Zukal, Studio ZZIP LEGAL ACTION

The Czech state attorney’s office charged Zukal, owner and director of the private TV production company Studio ZZIP in the town of Olomouc, with falsely accusing local law-enforcement officials of corruption and links with organized crime in a series of investigative reports broadcast on the national TV Nova network in 1997.

Zukal faced one count of “assisting in the criminal act of false accusation” under Articles 10.1 and 174.1 of the Czech penal code and two counts of making false accusations under Article 174.1 of the same code. Each count carries a maximum three-year jail sentence. Prosecutors informed Zukal that his trial would likely begin in February 2000.

Local police in Olomouc had been harassing Zukal and his staff since April 1997, when his first report on police corruption aired nationwide on TV Nova. He was first arrested on April 24, 1997, and charged with “spreading false rumors” under Article 160.1 of the Czech penal code. The charges were dropped in November of that year, after the investigator found no evidence to support the charge.

Zukal was again arrested on January 5, 1998, in connection with a November 19, 1997, TV Nova report in which he attempted to prove that Vladimir Pryzna, a top local police investigator, had accepted a bribe from a local businessman wanted on charges of fraud and counterfeiting. After several hours of questioning, Zukal was charged with criminal libel and then released.

CPJ protested Zukal’s detention and the charges against him in a December 20 letter to Prime Minister Milos Zeman.

In February 1998, President Vaclav Havel issued an amnesty that included people facing criminal-libel charges. Police then altered the charge against Zukal to “making false accusations.” The police concluded their investigation in November 1999, when they submitted a 1,000-page file on Zukal to the state attorney’s office, which decided to press charges.

At year’s end, it seemed likely that Zukal would be forced to represent himself during the coming trial, as he had run out of funds to pay an attorney.