Justice minister: the law should protect child victims

Children in distress – we see them in ads appealing for public donations, we see them in news bulletins as the victims of horrific crimes and splashed across front pages. More than ever in the last year Czechs have witnessed the suffering of young children – a naked boy lying naked and bound, force-fed by his mother, a little girl crying in the street as her parents fight over her, pulling her in different directions. Now the justice minister has put his foot down and presented the Cabinet with an amendment to the law which would offer victims, particularly child victims, the right to privacy.

Observers have long pointed out that under Czech law victims are far less protected from hurtful publicity than criminals. When an underage boy recently killed his schoolmate his name, address and private data were carefully concealed from the press. On the other hand children like eight-year-old Ondra –abused by his mother in the worst possible manner – have no such right to privacy. Ondra was repeatedly shown in undignified circumstances and social workers say that whenever TV stations re-run the footage Ondra suffers anew. It is Ondra’s case that is reported to have set the wheels in motion – Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil wants the law to clearly specify that victims have a right to privacy and protection, especially child victims. Miroslav Krutina of the Czech Helsinki Committee says the amendment is long overdue.

“Our system protects offenders more than it does victims. This is especially true if you compare the situation of young offenders under 18 and that of victims under 18. In the case of adults the situation is more balanced. The law protects their right to privacy in more or less the same manner, but victims under 18 are totally vulnerable. There is a gap in the law and I am happy to hear that the minister wants to do something about it.”

Social workers who are now taking care of Ondra and other children spotlighted by the media say that in the face of nation-wide publicity it is almost impossible to protect them from re-living the painful circumstances and embarrassing questions from schoolmates. Child psychologist Alena Černá says that being constantly reminded of what happened prevents children from healing.

“The ability to forget is a deeply rooted safety mechanism in children. If you have a traumatic experience as a child this is one of the very simple ways of coping with the situation. But if you are open to publicity you are reminded of that trauma over and over and hurt over and over and can’t do anything about it. We adults can seek help, we can talk about it. But children are very often helpless. They do not understand the violence and they are very fragile. So it is very traumatic for them to see themselves hurt on screen and have their schoolmates recognize them and ask questions. I feel very strongly that our legal system should help protect them from this.”

If the proposed amendment is approved child victims should remain anonymous – unless their parents or guardians request otherwise – for instance in abduction cases where their picture might help uncover their whereabouts. Any journalist who violates their right to privacy could face a million-crown fine.