Czech tabloid conduct tests principle of freedom of the press

Last Thursday, the Czech tabloid known simply as Aha! published semi-naked photographs of the 77 year-old Czech actress Jiřina Bohdalová. The photographs were taken clandestinely, while the actress was on holiday in Turkey. Soon after, it was revealed that Ms Bohdalová had suffered a mental breakdown and was undergoing psychiatric treatment. Questions have since been raised about just how far the Czech media can go and what the limits to public interest really are.

Just what are the limits of media freedom, particularly in a country that has experienced first hand the curtailments and injustices of totalitarianism? This is a question that is rarely asked in a country that has an almost instinctive reaction to limitations on media freedoms. But occasionally, when the media are found to have crossed that mark, these issues find their way into the forefront of the public debate.

This has certainly been the case with the publication by the tabloid newspaper Aha! of semi-naked photographs of 77-year-old Czech actress Jiřina Bohdalová on holiday in Turkey. The newspaper says that it obtained the pictures from a member of the public who just happened to snap the images while on holiday in Turkey. But it has also argued that it did not publish even more revealing pictures that were made available to the newspaper, and has insisted that Ms Bohdalová was not on a personal holiday, but rather on a working trip in her capacity as an actress.

Miroslav Jelínek is the chairman of the Czech Association of Journalists, a voluntary grouping of journalists which monitors reporting in the country. He dismisses such a defence, arguing that the publication is a clear cut violation of journalistic principles:

“From the point of view of the Association of Journalists, and the Ethical Commission, it is a clear violation of our ethical codex. Among other things, this codex states that aside from irrefutable cases of public interest, journalists must not place the subjects of their reporting into difficulties or cause personal crisis. This happened – because to photograph an actress in a hotel room or in her private space, walking around naked is certainly going to cause distress to the subject.”

Mr Jelínek also believes that the newspaper’s actions violate yet more of the Association’s ethical principles:

“Our ethical codex also states that journalists should not use dishonourable means in order to gain information, photographs or documents – this also occurred in this case. From our perspective, we will certainly publish our ruling – that is the only thing we can really do. I can only hope that this manner of so-called reporting is seen and understood by the readers of this particular tabloid, and that they decide to stop buying it, because what this newspaper has done is simply beyond the realms of good taste.”

Ultimately, this case may end up in court, with one possible outcome being a large fine levied on the publishers of Aha!. If that is the case, the dos and don’ts of journalistic integrity will become even more firmly cemented in a country which, following the fall of communism, had to rebuild the credibility and methodology of the journalistic profession almost entirely from scratch.