World Association of Newspapers condemns Zeman over Respekt attack

Prime Minister Milos Zeman

The Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman is not a man who minces his words - especially when those words concern the media. He regularly calls journalists "stupid", "lazy" and "incompetent", and says the Czech press is biased and untrustworthy. But on Monday Mr Zeman went further than he'd ever been before in his crusade against the Fourth Estate - he announced after a cabinet meeting that his government had decided to launch a full-frontal attack on the right-wing weekly Respekt - which claimed this week that his Social Democrat cabinet was corrupt from top to bottom. The Prime Minister said he and his cabinet colleagues were planning to shower the paper with lawsuits, a legal assault which would, he said, hopefully force the paper out of business. Mr Zeman's comments have been lambasted by many commentators here in the Czech Republic, but on Thursday the story went international - the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers condemned Mr Zeman for attacking one of the most sacred pillars of democracy - press freedom. Radio Prague's Rob Cameron spoke to Timothy Balding, Director General of the World Association of Newspapers, and he put it to him that Mr Zeman was merely exercising his own democratic right to defend himself from defamation:

" Well I would recognise the right of any citizen to file a lawsuit for alleged defamation. What's unusual in this case is for a government collectively to pursue a publication. It seems to me a very extreme reaction, and not really very wise or appropriate. The price of democracy is that government should tolerate criticism, even in its very severe manifestation. I must say that in this case I can't judge the merits of any legal suit, because I would obviously have to read the articles and consider those. But what I find deeply troubling is the prime minister's confession that the aim of the lawsuits is to put Respekt out of business. Frankly, the language used by the prime minister, if he's been quoted correctly, is more appropriate to gangsters than to senior politicians, who have the solemn duty to protect and promote press freedom."

Mr Zeman is certainly known for his criticism of the media. Do you think that comments such as yours, which were quoted yesterday by the Czech News Agency, can make him think again perhaps?

"Well I can only hope so. I wouldn't be so pretentious as to assume that what I say is going to have that effect, but I think it's important for the prime minister and the Czech government to see how such language and such threats to the press is perceived internationally. The action being taken by the government based on the motive of trying to put a publication out of business is really intolerable and out of place in any democracy, and one simply wouldn't see such language or such intent in any developed society."

Do you think anything more serious could come from this, if Mr Zeman and his government does indeed try to force Respekt out of business? What other measures could be taken by journalists in the Czech Republic acting with colleagues from abroad?

" Well this would be a deep problem for Czech society as a whole, and I can't believe the forces within the Czech Republic would sit idly by and see what is basically a true threat to the freedom of the press and to democracy."