Czech government moves to soften controversial “muzzle” law

The Czech government on Wednesday moved to soften the controversial “muzzle” law that strictly prohibits journalists from revealing information about individuals involved in a criminal investigation, under threat of up to 5 years in prison. The proposed amendment introduces a “public interest” clause which would allow the release of such information if it pertains to politicians and other public officials.

The introduction of the “muzzle” law in April of 2009 sparked widespread criticism both at home and abroad. International media watchdogs said it was an attack on press freedom and violated the public’s right to information, creating the image of a country still learning the basics of democracy. The Syndicate of Czech Journalists slammed the law as excessive and unjustified, a move that represented a real threat to investigative journalism and freedom of expression. That same month 34 senators filed a complaint against it with the Constitutional Court. A month later then-caretaker prime minister Jan Fischer promised the law would be reviewed. However the process was slow and difficult, hampered by political instability. On Wednesday Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil said his proposed amendment had won government approval and was ready to go to Parliament.

“In line with its policy programme and an earlier coalition agreement the cabinet has moved to soften the much-criticized “muzzle” law. In future public interest will override the right to privacy. And it will be up to the courts to resolve any conflict in specific cases. We think that is a very reasonable compromise in our attempt to balance two interests – the right to information and the right to privacy.”

If approved by Parliament the bill would make it possible for journalists to release information, including wiretappings, on criminal proceedings in cases of corruption involving politicians and public figures. Social Democrat deputy Jeroným Tejc, who specializes in legal matters, said his party had no problem with the proposed amendment.

“It is right that public interest should have precedence over the right to privacy and I have no problem with this being explicitly stated in the law and certain conditions being specified. This view was supported by Parliaments committee for legal and constitutional matters and there was broad agreement on it last year across the political spectrum.”

Hearing today’s arguments it is hard to believe that less than two years ago deputies from all political parties with the exception of the Communists and a few who abstained, voted in favour of the legislation in its present form. So how does journalist and former dissident Jan Urban see the attempts to modify the law?

“We still have a long way to go because the government’s proposed amendment will now go have to go through the normal Parliamentary procedure. And, while we already know that the coalition supports it and the opposition issued a statement saying that they have no problem with softening the conditions of the so-called muzzle law, we have to be open to surprises, because the group that drafted this law within the coalition Civic Democrats is still quite strong. And anything may happen in Parliament. But I would like to be hopeful and optimistic –it is definitely a step in the right direction.”

What would you in particular like to see changed in the present muzzle law?

“The basic principle preventing publication of any information on ongoing criminal proceedings involving public figures –with very high punitive penalties of up to 5 years in prison - was simply ridiculous. If this goes away it will be fine, but I really want to see the notion of public interest –the right to know what public figures are doing, how they are spending their money, taxpayers’ money - to be taken into account as a primary and sacred right.

The proposal says in controversial cases it will be up to a court to decide where public interest outweighs the right to privacy. Is that acceptable for you?

“I am quite suspicious of the Czech courts, but it is a much more acceptable and fair procedure than state administration being stated as the only decision-maker in the procedure as we have it now. So let’s see what will be the final outcome, but this is a step in the right direction.”