Attacks on the Press 2002: Czech Republic

Despite having joined NATO in 1999 and being a front-runner for European Union membership in 2004, many senior politicians in the Czech Republic remain hostile toward the country’s feisty press and regularly obstruct critical media coverage of political scandals.

The country was shaken on July 22, when news broke that police had uncovered a plot by Karel Srba, a former senior Foreign Ministry official, to assassinate Sabina Slonkova, an investigative reporter for the Prague daily Mlada Fronta Dnes. Police arrested Srba and three accomplices after being tipped off by one of the would-be assassins. Srba had been forced to resign from his position as general secretary of the Foreign Ministry in March 2001 after Slonkova and a colleague published a series of articles implicating him in financial corruption at the ministry. The trial of Srba and his accomplices is set to begin in March 2003.

An October 2001 threat by Prime Minister Milos Zeman to take legal action against the independent Prague weekly Respekt for its sharp attacks on government corruption led to a libel lawsuit and countersuit between a Cabinet minister and Respekt editor-in-chief Petr Holub. The affair ended in February when police officials and prosecutors rejected both lawsuits.

In an effort to limit politicians’ power to intimidate journalists, Holub sent an April 5 letter to Public Ombudsman Otakar Motejl requesting that he ask the government to amend the Criminal Code to strengthen legal protection of press freedom. Motejl did not support the proposal, and authorities took no steps to decriminalize libel.

Nova television reported that journalist Zdenek Zukal continued to fight criminal libel charges filed against him in December 1999 by police officers who claimed that he had broadcast false information about them. In June, the trial was adjourned indefinitely due to a conflict of interest between Zukal’s lawyers and the plaintiffs.

On April 16, an appeals court in the capital, Prague, upheld a 2001 ruling instructing Respekt to apologize to Miroslav Slouf, chief adviser to Prime Minister Zeman, for writing about Slouf’s links with alleged criminals. Respekt appealed the case to the Supreme Court, where the suit remained pending at year’s end.

Members of the lower house of Parliament prevailed in their efforts to retain political influence over state-run radio. On May 9, the chamber passed a bill allowing it to nominate members to the Czech Radio Council, the body that oversees the state-run Czech Radio. President Vaclav Havel unsuccessfully vetoed the measure on April 23, arguing that the upper house of Parliament and members of civil society should also be involved in the nomination process.

Following the rebellion of journalists at the state-run Czech Television (CT) against management in late 2000 and early 2001, the broadcaster continued to struggle in 2002 with allegations of financial mismanagement and managerial interference in the editorial process. In early June, CT director Jiri Balvin was cleared of charges that
he rigged a tender for broadcasting equipment to favor a former employer. Later
that month, police opened an investigation after hidden microphones and cameras ýere discovered in CT’s studios. Balvin told police that he had ordered the surveil-
lance to determine if journalists were using CT equipment for personal business. The inquiry determined that the surveillance was legal, but the incident highlighted an atmosphere of distrust within the broadcaster.

Many journalists and intellectuals mourned the U.S. decision in September to end its financial support for the Czech-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and to close the station. The outlet had played a pivotal role in Czech history by providing a reliable, alternative source of news during the Cold War and the decade that followed.

July 18

Sabina Slonkova, Mlada Fronta Dnes

Slonkova, an investigative reporter for the Prague daily Mlada Fronta Dnes, was the target of a murder plot allegedly planned by Karel Srba, the former general secretary of the Czech Foreign Ministry. Srba was arrested on July 19–in addition to three others who had been arrested on July 18–on suspicion of planning to kill the journalist.

Slonkova has written frequently about Srba in recent years. She told the Czech News Agency that she believes she was targeted because she covered controversial business deals that Srba had made while in the ministry. One of the alleged hired assassins warned police of the planned murder, and Slonkova went into hiding for 10 days while detectives searched for those behind the plot. The trial against Srba and his accomplices is set to begin in March 2003.