Czech Republic criticized for fining journalist who protected source

Sabina Slonková, photo: CTK

A year ago, Sabina Slonková acquired undercover footage of the president’s chief of staff, Jiří Weigl, meeting lobbyist Miroslav Šlouf in a downtown Prague hotel. Ms Slonková was recently fined 20,000 crowns by a Prague court for posting the footage on the news website Aktuálně while failing to disclose who had given her the tape. The fine that Ms Slonková paid for protecting her source was apparently the first of its kind since the Velvet Revolution, and on Tuesday the International Press Institute voiced its concern. Earlier, I spoke to director David Dadge in Vienna:

“It’s very worrying because it comes on the back of another press freedom violation, in many ways. There is an attempt to push through a law, at present it is in the lower house of Parliament, but it may well go before the president at some point. It seeks to actually fine and imprison journalists if they reveal a wiretap and the source of that wiretap. And this is very worrying, because in western countries in particular there is always a very fine balance between the national interest and the public interest. And I think courts have to weigh this up very carefully and that you cannot just say that there should be a blanket-ban on the revelations regarding wiretaps because this could be in the public interest – because the government could be using them for spurious matters.

So you have these two particular violations, you have the fining of a journalist and you have this wiretap law which is slowly moving through the parliamentary processes. And I think that what this is saying is that the government is trying to narrow down the rights of journalists and their ability to report on what government does.”

Sabina Slonková,  photo: CTK
Okay, but what do you find problematic about the case of Mrs Slonková in particular?

“Well, I think that the big concern there is that first of all you have a criminal prosecution, I personally think that it is wrong to try and imply that journalists should be punished for actually practicing their impression. And you have a stigma that arises from that, once a journalist is fined, you may well have a criminal record for actually practicing your profession. And I think that this sends out the wrong signals to her colleagues in the Czech Republic, and perhaps within the European Union as well; that if they don’t stay within the lines, that if they cross the lines and upset the government, then they could well end up in court, and they could well face a criminal fine.”

More generally, how would you say the Czech Republic is faring in a European context, when it comes to press freedom?

“Well, the problem is that the Czech republic picks up on a strain of thought in jurisprudence which is largely found in Central Europe and which is not necessarily the Anglo-Saxon model, which is this: the fact is that there is a feeling that you can fine journalists, that it is not necessarily a big criminal issue for journalists to be punished. You can see this perhaps in the Czech Republic, but you can see this in Slovakia as well, where fines have been handed out. There was an attempt to criminalize defamation in Slovenia as well. And Austria also carries laws which penalize journalists for talking about things like the Holocaust. Those types of laws see the journalist as perhaps having an influence on the rest of society in a way that can be damaging. And these countries are actually prepared to punish journalists through using criminal sanctions. That’s not necessarily the Anglo-Saxon model, and it’s just a very worrying trend to think about journalists practicing their profession and perceive it in some way as actually being criminal.”