Police study: wire-tapping numbers were exaggerated

Jiri Kolar (left) and Frantisek Bublan, photo: CTK

Three months ago it caused nothing less than a furore in the Czech Republic: the news that wiretapping of telephones was among the highest in Europe. Following several high-profile tapping cases the country's president himself asked for a full investigation. Now, the police study is complete and both the interior minister and other officials are standing by numbers said to show that tapping in this country is not nearly as high as previously thought.

Jiri Kolar (left) and Frantisek Bublan, photo: CTK
We're joined in the studio by Jan Velinger who has been following the story. Jan, tell us about the latest developments.

"The new study says that the number of people wire-tapped yearly - in connection with serious cases of organised, drugs-related, or especially violent crimes - is average among European countries: some 16 people for every 100, 000 inhabitants. Previous figures quoted had suggested the number was many times higher - as high as 100. The police report's figure ranks the Czech Republic just above neighbouring Germany, but well below countries at the top end of the chart, like Switzerland (33), the Netherlands (62), and Italy (76)."

How are the police explaining such a great shift in the numbers?

"The original figures failed to distinguish between the number of phones being tapped and the number of individuals under surveillance, which distorted the final result. The new report takes that difference into account, showing quite simply that there are more phones than individuals; here's what police president Jiri Kolar said."

"We now have 13.3 million cell phones in a country of just 10 million, so it stands to reason that means a lot. We tried to explain in the past that the number of tapped lines did not equal the number of individuals, but obviously not well-enough. The numbers released before covered only the number of taps."

That seems rather academic - are the police blushing over the situation?

"Blushing, no. On the contrary they have come up with figures that suggest that the police in the Czech Republic are not overly zealous in reaching for wire-tapping as a tool. But there is still a strong public suspicion here, reaching back to the communist era, that the police do so - especially given that the new figures also come from the police themselves, and of course the situation had become highly-politicised when some top opposition politicians complained of their own phones being tapped.

One gets the sense that the police - and this is something at the Interior Minister Frantisek Bublan has himself acknowledged - want to reveal as little information as possible, so as not to put any on-going surveillance of potentially dangerous individuals at risk. Meanwhile, to convince the public that individual rights are being upheld Mr Bublan and other officials repeatedly point out that any form of electronic surveillance or wire-tapping must first be approved by a judge. In the police president's view you can't have any greater guarantee than that."

The Interior Minister Frantisek Bublan, photo: CTK
"In our justice system I know of no higher authority in such legal affairs than an independent judge. I don't know who could be stricter in the approval process."

Last, what was the reaction of the opposition in Parliament to the study? Do they accept it at face value?

"Yes and no. Some in the opposition like Ivan Langer an MP for the right-of-centre Civic Democratic Party welcome the study's release on the one hand, but, say they would prefer to see a study compiled by an independent commission. Langer himself continues to cast a sceptical eye on a number of details.

"It's good that the study exists but in my view it contains a number of confusing or misleading figures. All the same I am confident those figures - as well as changes to legislation I would like to propose - will see the police...and above all the courts behave more prudently when allowing wire-tapping. We also need to increase legal protection for individuals who had their privacy invaded but were ultimately never charged."

Talks with the Justice Ministry are already underway I understand...

That's right, the conclusion being it's very unlikely we've heard the last of this issue yet and the Czech Republic may benefit by having two studies and not one outlining the state of tapping affairs.