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(Apr 27, 2009) On April 1, 2009, an amendment to the Czech Penal Code that prohibits the press from revealing the identity of victims of serious crime and the contents of conversations wiretapped by the police entered into force. Persons convicted of "unauthorized handling of personal data" (under section 178 of the Penal Code) face a maximum term of five years' imprisonment, a "prohibition of activity," or a fine. On the basis of the provisions amending the "administrative misdemeanor" sections of the Act on Protection of Personal Data, the maximum fine is CZK5 million (US$240,256). (Act Dated February 5, 2009 Which Amends Act No. 141/1961 Coll., on Criminal Court Proceedings (Criminal Code), as Amended by the Later Prescriptions, and Certain Other Acts, COLLECTION OF LAWS, No. 52/2009, Pt. 18, at 706-708, available at http://prisonforjournalists.com/priloha/text-law-en.pdf.)

The amendment law had been passed by the lower house of Parliament in late October 2008, but vetoed by the upper chamber. However, in early February 2009, the lower house overruled the upper by a large majority of 129 MPs (out of 200), and the amendment was made law. (Short History of a Law, Prison for Journalists website, http://prisonforjournalists.com/EN/about-the-law/ (last visited Apr. 21, 2009).)

The amendment was originally intended chiefly to protect abused and maltreated children from undesirable publicity, and the new section 8b of article 1 of the amendment act does criminalize publication of information, or of visual images or video or audio recordings in connection with the main trial or public hearing, that enables the determination of the identity of victims under 18 years of age. Section 8b further forbids publicly published lawful verdicts from revealing such victims' first name(s), surname, or residence, a restriction that may be further tightened by the Chairman of the Senate to protect the interests of the injured party. The new section also applies the above protections to victims "against whom the criminal offense of soliciting or distribution of pornography, or any of the criminal offenses against life and health, freedom and human dignity or against the family and youth has been committed." (Act, supra.) Some exceptions to the ban on publication of information are also included in section 8b: e.g., if the publication of such information is permitted by the law or is essential for the purpose of the criminal proceedings or if the victim provides prior written consent to the publication of such information (if the person is under the age of 18, the consent must be provided by the party's legal representative). (Id.)

Critics of the amendment law, who have dubbed it the "muzzle law," object to the fact that it protects not only the privacy of crime victims, but also that of the perpetrators of crime. In addition, the provisions against publication of the content of wiretappings have met with strong protest from the Czech media, some Czech senators, and civic associations. As one journalist pointed out, the reason why it is important that police wiretaps be published is that "political pressures in the Czech Republic prevent police and courts from doing their work properly," so that thus far, "all serious crimes committed by Czech politicians have been uncovered by the press. None of them has been disclosed by the police and none of them has reached a court or has been punished." (Czech Daily Says 'Muzzle Law' Step to Loss of Freedom, CTK, Apr. 1, 2009, World News Connection [WNC] online subscription database, NewsEdge Doc. No. 200904011477.1_6010004a02b0414e, quoting journalist Ondrej Neff of the LIDOVE NOVINY daily.)

Opponents of the Penal Code amendment, which include the most widely read Czech media, the Czech Journalists' Syndicate and the Association of Czech Publishers, have established the "Prison for Journalists" website to publicize information on the "muzzle law" and protests against it. (Slovak Journalists Share Czech Colleagues' Opposition to New Law, CTK (Prague), Apr. 7, 2009, available at http://www.ceskenoviny.cz/news/zpravy/slovak-journalists-share-czech-col
leagues-opposition-to-new-law/369979&id_seznam
.) A move is also underway to challenge the constitutionality of the amendment. It was reported on April 1 that Petr Pithart, Deputy Chairman of the Czech Senate, was preparing a constitutional complaint against the new law and had gathered the necessary 17 senatorial votes needed for lodging it with the Constitutional Court. (Czech Senator Plans Constitutional Legal Challenge to New Press Law, CZECH HAPPENINGS, Apr. 1, 2009, WNC, NewsEdge Doc. No. 200904021477.1_e171003797caef94.)

The Slovak Syndicate of Journalists has also supported its Czech counterparts in expressing opposition to the new law, contending in a public statement that the amendment is unique in Europe and "establishes a serious obstacle to journalists who want to continue with investigative journalism, it threatens the performance of their profession and provokes fear." (Slovak Journalists Share Czech Colleagues' Opposition to New Law, supra.) At a meeting held on November 7, 2008, in Prague, the European Newspaper Publishers' Association (ENPA) had used the Czech draft Penal Code amendments as a negative example in calling on Member States of the European Union "to refrain from enacting domestic legislation "at odds with fundamental rights, freedom of speech and access to information," an appeal that formed part of its "Prague Declaration." (EU Publishers: Czech Draft Penal Code Curtails Freedom of Press, CTK, Nov. 10, 2008, available at http://praguemonitor.com/2008/11/10/eu-publishers-czech-draft-penal-code
-curtails-freedom-press
.)

Author: Wendy Zeldin More by this author
Topic: Crime and law enforcement More on this topic
Jurisdiction: Czech Republic More about this jurisdiction

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Last updated: 04/27/2009