Short history of „the muzzle law“

Why the Czech Media are not to publish:

1. Assassination attempt on the President – reporters are not allowed

What is the history of a law which has been nicknamed as „the Czech muzzle law“?

At the beginning, there was a criminal and penal code amendment draft made by the government, specifically by the justice ministry.

The idea of the lawmaker was to limit publishing information on the crime victims, particularly under the age of 18: the draft was a reaction to the so-called Kurim case when a dubious, most likely sectarian ring torturing two young boys had been revealed.

The overall intention is welcome but the text of the legislation has some quite arguable points. It also implies that the media are not allowed to publish information on any any serious (e.g. violent) crime victim unless – generally speaking – he or she does not approve.

This can eventually lead to an absurd situation that the media are not allowed to publish that – for instance – there has been an assassination attempt on the Czech Republic's president because they are unable to receive his approval. Similarly, it is forbidden to publish the name of a politician's friend who was killed by a different friend of the same politician (this example it neither theoretic, nor overdone; that really happened in autumn 2008).

2. A minister of interior. A businessman. A mafia boss.

Nevertheless, this was just a first chapter of the story.

A MP, a member of the right centre party ODS (Civic Democrats) put a proposal for additional changes of the law.

His legislation introduces a complete ban on publishing any documents coming from police sources, particularly documents coming from police wiretap. The word “complete” must be underlined because the text of the legislation does not mention any exceptions including public interest. One who publishes such a document can be heavily fined and can go to jail for up to 5 years.

The MP, Marek Benda, did not hide that the legislation was a direct answer to the fact that the Czech media had published specific information coming from police phone wiretaps.

Among others, it is a revelation that Ivan Langer, the member of the same party and (in 2008) Czech interior minister used to lobby for a businessman who – at the same time – had close contacts with a notorious mafia boss Frantisek Mrazek.

The men together worked on the same issue although it has never been confirmed that the politician knew about his ally’s link to the boss. That happened some 8 years ago (Langer was the Parliament's lower house vice-chairman at that time). Mrazek was killed 3 years ago by an unknown shooter.

The MP would later partly retract the comment that he proposed the legislation because of his disagreement with publishing that case – but in December, he was open while speaking at a Parliament committee (the discussion is recorded).

The MP also argued that the originally justice ministry draft was about personal data protection: according to him publishing information from police wiretaps also violates the need for protection this kind of data.

3. By surprise. Law passed without discussion

The MP Marek Benda pushed his amendment through.

It was approved by a key lower house committee he chaired.

Just several weeks after – at the end of October 2008 – the amendment and the entire law were approved by the lower house itself.

The news caught the Czech media by surprise. There had been no discussion with journalist or publisher associations; there had been no attempt to just let them know. The procedure was short and quick. As Mr. Benda said – MPs were not responsible for the media not having followed the story of the law.

In Czech legislative system, legislation has to be also approved by the upper house of the Parliament although the lower house can overrule it by an absolute majority.

The editors of Czech newspapers and the biggest TV channel’s news programme signed a letter of protest. They have succeeded in convincing the upper house to send the legislation back to the lower house.

4. The government and the opposition together

After the upper house veto, the Czech media thought the Parliament would not pass the law or – at least – try to approve a changed legislation which would include the principle of public interest.

Journalists believed that most MPs had not known what they voted for in October 2008.

The media were even assured by some legislators that they had not to be afraid.

However – at the beginning of February – the Parliament's lower house finally passed the law overruling the upper house veto by a large majority of 129 MPs (the house consists of 200 members).

The law was voted for by the Czech Prime Minister and the ODS chairman Mirek Topolanek. That happened at the time of the Czech Republic EU presidency.

The law was also voted for by the interior minister Ivan Langer, the above-mentioned politician whose name had appeared in the police wiretapping documents about a ring of politicians, businessmen and a mafia boss.

It is likely that this man – who (at the time of the vote) was presiding over the Council of European interior ministers – inspired the law. The fact is that Langer did defend the legislation in a very strong way.

In addition to this, the law was supported by the Social Democrats – otherwise opposing the right centre ODS. Although the chairman Jiri Paroubek was absent, he did not prevent a large majority of his social democratic MPs from voting for the law.

Passing the law, a strange ad hoc political coalition arose. It is the coalition of the main right-wing and main left-wing party; the coalition of the government and the opposition.

5. President Klaus: I will always side with the weaker. Not with the media

The last obstacle was the Czech President.

According to the Constitution, the only way of preventing this legislation from coming to force was the veto of President Klaus (though his veto could be overruled by the lower house).

President Klaus knew about the protests coming from worldwide publisher's organizations and from the Reporters Without Borders. He also received a letter from the Czech media editors – the number of signatures was even higher then before.

On Thursday, February 12th, the President announced that he would not veto the law.

One of his arguments is that innocent citizens are under a serious threat of being named in wiretapping police documents which are illegally leaked and consequently published, and he has to protect the rights of citizens against the powerful media. “I will, when balancing two important interests, which are both equally supported by the Constitution, always take position with the weaker one, the one for whom it is much more difficult to claim their rights and liberties, i.e. the individual citizen.”

As a Czech commentator remarked: “In recently published wiretapping documents, there were the following “weaker ones”: Ivan Langer – politician, Vlastimil Tlusty – politician, Frantisek Mrazek – businessman…”

6. What is left at the national level: The Constitutional Court

The law came to force on April 1st.

Is there any chance for a change?

One option is repealing the law. The centre-right government fell in March 2009 and there is a new interim cross-party government of experts which is supposed to stay in power until the June 2010 general election. The Czech Republic's new Prime Minister Jan Fischer considers the law to be “a problem” and his government even submitted an amendment to the Parliament: if passed it would ensure that the law meets international standards. However – politicians in the Parliament's lower house repeatedly postponed the start of the discussion about the law. In December 2009, the house finally passed on first reading the amendment softening the muzzle law but MPs refused a fast procedure discussing the bill; thus the law will not be changed before Spring 2010.

A different option is bringing the case before the Czech Constitutional Court.

In the Czech constitutional system, the Court can start hearing under several various conditions: A complaint can be filed by the President and a minimal number of MPs or senators (the Senate = the Parliament's upper house); by a judge considering a case linked to a questioned legislation and by a citizen if he or she has already exhausted any other judicial options.

As the President and MPs have strongly supported the law, they can be hardly expected to file a complaint.

Nevertheless, quite a high number of senators have signed a complaint against to law. However, there is no set date yet when the Court could start hearing.

And there is another option. The Czech media publish a police wiretapping document – thus, they initiate a criminal investigation which would enable to bring the case before the Court. That could also mean that a journalist would be sentenced and would have pay a heavy fine according to the law before the Court decides.