Zeman asks police to file charges against critical weekly

Prime Minister Milos Zeman

Several weeks ago Prime Minister Milos Zeman announced he and his sixteen cabinet ministers would be filing million-crown lawsuits against the critical weekly Respekt, after the paper claimed his government was corrupt from top to bottom. Mr Zeman - whose hatred of the media is perhaps unprecedented among Czech politicians - even said he hoped the barrage of lawsuits would force Respekt out of business. Privately, however, several ministers said they didn't have enough cash to stump up the deposit, and Mr Zeman has now changed tactics. Instead of filing individual civil suits, the government has asked the police to file criminal charges. This way the cabinet doesn't pay a penny. By Nicole Klement.

Prime Minister Milos Zeman
But the Respekt case has of course raised a number of questions - not only about the wisdom of the government's actions but also about civil liberties and the freedom of the press. Commentator Vaclav Pinkava says Czech politicians simply haven't learnt to take criticism as part of the job.

"This is not something that should be taken to court by, of all people politicians, because politicians are elected and they are elected by people of all persuasions. Some people, who happen to be journalists or whatever, at some point reach an opinion that they were elected incorrectly and express that view. And that view if expressed is perfectly legitimate in a democratic society, like any other. And to prosecute people for it is simply ridiculous. Criticism comes with the job if you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen. You have to be able to take criticism as a politician otherwise you shouldn't be in politics."

But not everyone shares that view. Vaclav Zak, editor in chief of the bi-monthly Listy, says cabinet ministers clearly have the right to defend themselves from slander.

"I think that even people in public positions have to defend themselves. I think that the freedom of speech doesn't mean that you can say anything you want."

But both men agree that regardless of the ethical aspects of the case - the government is clearly making a mistake in taking the matter to court.

"It's very strange for the Prime Minister to actually over react like this when it is evident to anybody that that's the reaction you are going to get. You are going to get publicity about the very message that he didn't like. Now more people will hear about it and more people will think about it. If you are trying to kill a message, because it is unpalatable to you, then the best reaction would be to just trivialise it and ignore it. And not make it into a court case."

Vaclav Zak agrees, saying Mr Zeman would have done better to demand an apology.

"They should ask for an apology. Of course the article in Respekt was a nasty one. I think that it is comparatively clear that the people who are honest- they were insulted and nobody should be surprised that they want to defend themselves. But I think that the way they chose is really a very bad way."

Commentator Vaclav Zak there, on the government's legal action against the critical weekly Respekt. And stay tuned to Radio Prague to see how it all turns out...

Author: Nicole Klement
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