Cabinet filing charges against 'RESPEKT' weekly

Respekt weekly

At his press conference on Monday, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman has announced that the cabinet is going to file charges against the weekly journal Respekt. He said that that 17 members of the cabinet intended to sue the weekly for libel, demanding 10 million crowns of compensation each - a figure which would, in effect, ruin the journal. The article that aroused such fury claimed that the cabinet has lost its battle against corruption - one of its main pledges prior to the 1998 election. The cabinet, Respect writes, is actually condoning corruption. Many say, though, that such a statement is mild and general compared to those made by other publications. So, why is the cabinet reacting so strongly to this particular case? Radio Prague's Olga Szantova put that question to commentator Vaclav Pinkava.

"He has made it perfectly clear, why. He has said, in so many words that it is to make the publication finally disappear, to make it go out of business. One has to ask why he also mentioned the owner of the publication in the same announcement. It does seem to be a rather focused effort to get rid of a platform of opposition to the Social Democratic Party, which is associated with Havel's circle of friends, I mean, it's a publication owned by Karel Schwarzenberg"

...who is a close collaborator of President Havel.

"Yes. The really curious comment that Zeman has made is that he would like an even and fair relationship with journalists. Now, let us recall that this is the gentleman who has, on several occasions, publicly made very defamatory remarks about journalists and, unfortunately, being the beneficiary of a very broad parliamentary immunity, I doubt anybody can take him to court over that, not at least, while he is in office. It's very interesting that the government can take people to court and use public funds to forward their case."

Just one example, in 1998 Mr. Zeman called Respekt a journalistic cesspool, if you'll excuse the expression used by the Czech prime minister. Can the cabinet get away with this? What does it do with public opinion, people don't mind?

"Well, we shall see, we are in a very interesting germinal democracy here and one of the fundamental principals of a democracy is that the judiciary is independent. So, if political power chooses to go to court, there is no guarantee, in a fair and even democracy, that they will win their case. I think that this is an opportunity for the judiciary to weigh up the case on its merits and show themselves to be independent."

How does this speak about the freedom of the press in this country?

"The freedom of the press in this country is under attack constantly, because people simply are not used to the idea that in a democracy the press is there as a kind of watch dog, that it is the job of the media to be critical. The boundaries are constantly being drawn and re-drawn and mapped out to what constitutes the acceptable and unacceptable behavior of journalists, and I think in that sense it's a very healthy process that these things should go to court, because I would expect that the courts will find against the government in this case and that it will strengthen the freedom of the press. Should it go the other way, of course then that would be a very worrying development."

It also points to the fact that the general public is not quite aware of the role of the press. No politician, one year before general elections, in the Western, civilized world would dream of saying things like this against the press for fear that public opinion would come out against him.

"Well yes, that's true, but we must remember that Mr. Zeman has made it clear that he won't be standing again for office.."

...but his party will

"Yes, his party will and to that extent he is doing a disservice to his party. I think it is underestimating the potential back-lash."

Author: Olga Szantová
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