Proposal to make defamation of president criminal offense stirs memories of communist repression

Miloš Zeman, photo: Filip Jandourek

A group of Czech lawmakers have proposed an amendment to the criminal code that would make defamation of the president a criminal offense punishable by up to a year in jail. Coming on the eve of the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the move has elicited widespread criticism, with the opposition calling it a throwback to the repressive communist years.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek
No head of state in the country’s modern history has evoked as much controversy as President Miloš Zeman. On the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution he was pelted with eggs, his opponents turn up at scheduled events to protest against his policies, social networks are rife with insults and even politicians have been known to use unusually strong language in opposing the head of state. Now, sixty MPs from four different parties (Communists, Social Democrats, ANO and Dawn MPs) have backed a proposed amendment to the criminal code that would curb such excesses. Anyone who publicly defames the president or denigrates his reputation could face punishment ranging from a fine to a year in jail. The main proponent of the bill, Communist Party deputy Zdeněk Ondrácek, argues that it is time to restore respect for the office of the head of state and create a cultured atmosphere in a country that has become increasingly boorish.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka of the Social Democrats says the bill is not a good idea.

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: CTK
“If defamation of the president was reintroduced as a criminal offense, it could lead to the law being used in political battles and there is no saying where things might end.”

Although such a defamation law was in place in the years of the First Republic, the country’s brief period of democracy preceding 40 years of communist rule, and throughout the communist years, most MPs would consider its reintroduction a serious setback. TOP 09 head Miroslav Kalousek:

“It would be quite unacceptable – a return to the years of normalization and the untouchable communist top brass.”

Justice Minister Robert Pelikán argues that when the defamation law was scrapped in 1994 it was scrapped on the grounds that the president would be protected similarly as any other citizen by the law on slander. Political analyst Jiří Pehe also argues that the president does not need extra protection.

“The president is now directly elected by the people so he is part of the political process; he is not above politics as used to be the case, to some extent, with presidents elected by Parliament. And it would be really unfair for the president to be able to say whatever he thinks - and we know that our current president very often says very offensive things – and for the public not to be able to say what they think about the president, sometimes using perhaps slightly rougher language.”

Jiří Pehe,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
Controversy over the proposed legislation is only likely to fuel the anti-Zeman protests expected to take place on November 17th. President Zeman, who has said he will not enter the debate on a bill concerning his office, is not planning any public appearances on the day. According to his spokesman the head of state will quietly reflect on the events of November 17 at his residence at Lány near Prague.