Supreme Court: wiretapping of journalist investigating military tender 'illegal'

Janek Kroupa, photo: Khalil Baalbaki / Czech Radio

The Supreme Court has ruled that a regional court acted illegally six years ago in authorising the wiretapping of investigative journalist Janek Kroupa, who was digging into alleged corruption in a multi-billion crown military tender. In an interview with Radio Prague on Tuesday, he said the ruling sets important precedents in requiring authorities to explicitly justify any police surveillance of journalists.

Janek Kroupa,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki / Czech Radio
“The point that the Supreme Court made is that we as journalists have a right to protect our sources, but also [the judge] stated that sources have a right to be protected – which is something that the Czech law had never looked into. Secondly, they said that if the court or the police will ever want to break that rule, they will have to very specifically identify the reasons why they do so, which is something that did not happen in the past.”

The Supreme Court ruling related to a corruption case from nearly a decade ago. In March 2009, a revised contract was signed with the U.S.-owned Austrian arms maker Steyr to deliver 107 armoured personnel carriers at a cost of 14.4 billion crowns. Two years later, after police began investigating corruption surrounding the tender, a Steyr manager testified that a lobbyist close to the Czech prime minister had sought a bribe of nearly half a billion crowns to allow the deal to go through.

It later was revealed the police had for several months in 2011 and 2012 tapped the phones of Janek Kroupa, then an investigative journalist at the daily Mladá Fronta Dnes, now a reporter at Czech Radio, who had dug up much of the dirt over the Steyr tender.

The Supreme Court ruling found that in granting corruption police permission to monitor the journalist’s conversations, the Ostrava district court had acted illegally. Furthermore, after the investigation had concluded, the police failed to inform Mr Kroupa his phone had been tapped in connection with the case, though required to do so under Czech law.

Mr Kroupa’s lawyer, Petr Toman, told Czech Radio that the ruling sets an important precedent in terms of protecting the rights of journalists and their sources.

Marek Dalík,  photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio
“This is absolutely new and I think also ground-breaking in that when a court allows a journalist to be wiretapped then it must be handled in a specific way. Any such wiretap order must be justified on a case by case basis, and not in the same way as for someone who is not a journalist or part of another professional group with similar rights as a journalist.”

Mr Kroupa’s reporting is widely credited with leading to the conviction last July of the powerful lobbyist Marek Dalík, a long-time unofficial adviser and fixer to former prime minister Mirek Topolánek (ODS), for attempted bribery. He told Radio Prague that in the past, judges had treated journalists just like anybody else and did not recognize any right of protection.

“ And until now, the police generally implied that this right is applied only to situations when you are being interrogated. And you do not have to tell who the source is, but there was no protection whatsoever.”

So it’s a precedent. It’s ground-breaking.

“Definitely it is a precedent for us.”

Supreme Court judge Jiří Pácal said in the written ruling that the Ostrava district court had failed to respect the journalist’s right to protect his sources; furthermore, judges must always consider “whether the public benefit in disclosing sources outweighs the Constitutional right to freedom of expression”.