Wednesday, February 11, 2009

OSCE media freedom watchdog urges Czech President to veto criminal provisions curtailing media freedom

OSCE Press Release
February 11

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, today called on Czech President Vaclav Klaus to veto the draft criminal code and request Parliament to change provisions that threaten media freedom.

Haraszti objected to the code's provision that could sentence journalists to up to five years in prison and a fine of up to five million crowns for the publication of conversations wiretapped by the police. He also criticized the code for failing to decriminalize defamation.

On 5 February, the Czech Chamber of Deputies approved the new Criminal Code with a new ban on disclosing conversations wiretapped by the police unless they were used as evidence in court, despite the Senate's opposition.

"The provision does not acknowledge several international media freedom standards," Haraszti wrote in a letter to the President. "It does not allow for sanctions to be lifted in cases where the published information turns out to be of public importance. Without such a clause, there can be no efficient fight, inter alia, against corruption."

Haraszti was also critical of the draft law's failure to differentiate between the liability of state officials who leak information and the liability of civilians, including journalists.

"Unfortunately, such lack of differentiation is still widespread in post-Communist democracies. Democratization should remove this remnant of past enslavement of the citizen to the state," he added.

"Without disclaimers securing society's right to receive and distribute legitimate public-interest information, the Criminal Code can make media freedom insecure, and judiciary will not protect the fearless debate of important subjects," he wrote.

In addition, he expressed disappointment that the Criminal Code missed the unique opportunity to decriminalize defamation during this legislative reform, and argued that such cases should be dealt with in civil, not criminal, courts.

"A 21st-century Criminal Code in Europe should not preserve crimes that have proven to be incompatible with the modern concept of free speech," Haraszti warned. "They are also at odds with the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, and even with the practice of the Czech Constitutional Court."

Haraszti asked President Klaus to request that the Czech Parliament revise the Criminal Code to bring its amendments in line with European media freedom standards and OSCE commitments.

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