Numerous international documents, including those adopted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), establish freedom of expression as a fundamental right. The right to free speech, however, is not absolute. Consistent with international law, certain kinds of speech, such as obscenity, may be prohibited or regulated. When governments restrict speech, however, those restrictions must be consistent with their international obligations and commitments; for example, the restrictions must be necessary in a democratic country and proscribed by law. Criminal defamation and “insult” laws are often defended as necessary to prevent alleged abuses of freedom of expression. They are not, however, consistent with OSCE norms and their use constitutes an infringement on the fundamental right to free speech.
Criminal Defamation Laws
All individuals, including public officials, have a legitimate right to protect their reputations if untruthful statements have been made about them. Untrue statements which damage a person’s reputation constitute defamation. Oral defamation is known as slander; defamation in writing or other permanent forms such as film is libel. In some instances, criminal codes make defamation of public officials, the nation, or government organs a discrete offense, as distinct from defamation of a person. Truthful statements – as well as unverifiable statements of opinion – are not legally actionable as defamation. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights has held that public officials must tolerate a greater degree of criticism than private individuals: “The limits of acceptable criticism are accordingly wider as regards a politician as such than as regards a private individual. Unlike the latter, the former inevitably and knowingly lays himself open to close scrutiny of his every word and deed by both journalists and the public at large, and he must consequently display a greater degree of tolerance.” (Lingens v. Austria, Eur. Ct. H.R., 1986.)
Criminal defamation laws are those which establish criminal sanctions for defamation. Those sanctions may include imprisonment, fines, and prohibitions on writing. Individuals convicted of defamation in a criminal proceeding and sentenced to suspended prison terms may be subjected to the threat of immediate imprisonment if, for example, they violate an order not to publish. The existence of a criminal record may also have other social and legal consequences. In a criminal defamation case, state law enforcement agents (police and prosecutors) act, using taxpayer money, to investigate the alleged defamation and to act on behalf of the alleged victim. It is sometimes argued that criminal defamation laws are necessary to achieve the legitimate goal of providing the victims of defamation with redress. But general laws against libel and slander, embodied in civil codes, provide private persons as well as public officials the opportunity to seek redress, including damages, for alleged defamation. In such cases, the plaintiff and defendant stand in court as equals. Accordingly, specific criminal laws prohibiting defamation are unnecessary.
“Insult” laws make offending the “honor and dignity” of public officials (e.g., the President), government offices (e.g., the Constitutional Court), national institutions, and/or the “state” itself punishable. Unlike defamation laws, truth is not a defense to a charge of insult. Accordingly, insult laws are often used to punish the utterance of truthful statements, as well as opinions, satire, invective, and even humor. Although insult laws and criminal defamation laws both punish speech, significant differences exist between them. Defamation laws are intended to provide a remedy against false assertions of fact. Truthful statements, as well as opinion, are not actionable. The use of civil laws to punish defamation is permissible under international free speech norms. The use of criminal sanctions to punish defamation, however, chills free speech, is subject to abuse (through the use of state law enforcement agents), and is inconsistent with international norms. In contrast, recourse to any insult law, whether embodied in a civil or a criminal code, is inconsistent with international norms. Their Use Today
At one time, almost all OSCE countries had criminal defamation and insult laws. Over time, these laws have been repealed, invalidated by courts, or fallen into disuse in many OSCE participating States. Unfortunately, many criminal codes contained multiple articles punishing defamation and insult. Thus, even when parliaments and courts have acted, they have sometimes failed to remove all legal prohibitions against insult or all criminal sanctions for defamation. In communist countries and other anti-democratic regimes, such laws are often used to target political opponents of the government. Today, when insult and criminal defamation laws are used, they are most often used to punish mere criticism of government policies or public officials, to stifle political discussion, and to squelch news and discussion that governments would rather avoid. It is relatively rare for a private individual (someone who is not a public official, elected representative, or person of means and influence) to persuade law enforcement representatives to use the tax money of the public to protect their reputations. In some OSCE countries, such laws are still used to systematically punish political opponents of the regime. Even in countries where these laws have fallen into a long period of disuse, it is not unheard of for an overzealous prosecutor to revive them for seemingly political purposes. The International Context
Numerous non-governmental organizations have taken strong positions against criminal defamation and insult laws. These include Amnesty International; Article 19; the Committee to Protect Journalists; national Helsinki Committees such as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Croatian Helsinki Committee, Greek Helsinki Committee, Romanian Helsinki Committee and Slovak Helsinki Committee; the International Helsinki Federation; The World Press Freedom Committee; Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression; national chapters of PEN; and Reporters Sans Frontières. Moreover, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression issued a joint statement in February 2000 which included the following conclusions, based on relevant international norms:
- “Expression should not be criminalized unless it poses a clear risk of serious harm. . . . Examples of this are laws prohibiting the publication of false news and sedition laws. . . . These laws should be repealed.”
- “Criminal defamation laws should be abolished.”
- “Civil defamation laws should respect the following principles: public bodies should not be able to bring defamation actions; truth should always be available as a defense; politicians and public officials should have to tolerate a greater degree of criticism. . . .”
Finally, the United States Department of State regularly reports, in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, on cases where criminal defamation or insult laws have been used and, at OSCE meetings, regularly calls for the repeal of such laws. Recent Free Speech Cases in the Czech Republic
Although the Czech Constitutional Court and the Parliament acted (in 1994 and 1997, respectively) to reduce the number of articles in the penal code under which one may be convicted for speech offenses, there has been no discernable decrease over the past decade in the volume of cases threatened or actually brought under the remaining provisions of law which permit criminal prosecution for one’s speech.
The following summary, based on available reports, describes cases that were at some stage of investigation or legal proceeding during 2001:
- In December 2001, police asked that the parliamentary immunity of MP Ivan Langer be lifted in order to permit them to bring a charge against him of defaming businessman Peter Kovarcik.
- Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman threatened in October 2001 to have criminal defamation charges brought against Peter Holub, editor of the political weekly Respekt, in an explicit effort to bankrupt the paper and force its closure. Zeman’s threats followed the paper’s reporting on corruption in the Czech Republic. Holub, in turn, accused Zeman of incitement to hatred of a group of people. This case has generated broad international condemnation.
- On October 23, 2001, Frantisek Zamencnik, former editor-in-chief of Nove Bruntalsko, was sentenced to sixteen months in prison for criminal defamation in connection with his remarks regarding Bruntal Mayor Petr Krejci, Social Democrat Deputy Jaroslav Palas, and Ludmila Navarova, editor of a rival newspaper. Zamencnik had been convicted of criminal defamation twice before, but in those cases he was sentenced to suspended prison terms. The World Association of Newspapers has protested his most recent conviction and sentence.
- On September 27, 2000, police charged Vratislav Sima, formerly an advisor to Prime Minister Milos Zeman, with criminal defamation in connection with his alleged role in an effort to discredit Social Democrat Chairwoman Petra Buzkova. Subsequently, Jiri Kubik and Sabina Slonkova, two journalists from Mlada fronta dnes, were charged with abetting a crime, a violation of article 166 of the penal code. (The underlying “crime” in this instance was Sima’s alleged defamation of Buzkova, a charge that in and of itself violated international norms.)
- In October 2000, President Havel pardoned the two journalists, although the journalists subsequently called for the case to go to trial in order to establish a legal precedent regarding the right of journalists to protect their sources. The investigation of the journalists therefore continued until March 2001, at which time investigators concluded that Kubik and Slonkova had not committed any crime. The criminal investigation of Sima was not dropped until June 2001.
- In September 2001, Minister of Interior Stanslav Gross announced that he would seek to prosecute Jan Kopal for anti-American statements. Kopal, a far right-wing political figure, reportedly said on September 15, “[a] country like the United States – which committed so much evil in the past, which essentially has been supporting international terrorism and participated in missions like Yugoslavia where innocent civilians were being murdered – does not deserve anything else but such an attack.” Kopal was charged with violating article 165 of the penal code (approving a criminal offense), punishable by one year in prison. (Interestingly, Gross had previously made remarks associating Kopal’s party with neo-Nazis and fascists, prompting Kopal to seek to have criminal charges brought against Gross in December 2000 for 1) defamation, 2) spreading false alarm, and 3) defamation of a nation, its language or a race or a group of inhabitants in the Republic because of their political conviction, religion or lack of religious faith.) Journalist Tomas Pecina, while stating that he disapproved of Kopal’s remarks, then asserted that he had to associate himself with Kopal’s remarks for the sake of defending Kopal’s right to free speech. On December 6, Pecina was arrested and also charged with approving a criminal offense. (Ironically, an opinion poll conducted in September suggested that a majority of those questioned believe that U.S. foreign policy was one of the causes of the September 11 terrorist attacks.2) At present, the charges against Kopal have reportedly been dropped, but the status of the charges against Pecina is unclear.
- In September 2001, David Pecha, editor of the far left-wing paper Nove Bruntalsko, was indicted for criminal defamation (as well as supporting a movement aimed at suppressing human rights or which promotes national, racial, class or religious hatred, and spreading false alarm). In August 2001, Ministry of Justice Spokesperson Iva Chaloupkova reported that, during the first six months of 2001, seven people were convicted of criminal defamation. Three were given suspended sentences, three were fined, and one received no punishment.
- In July 2001, two reporters from state-owned Czech Television reportedly sought to have criminal defamation charges brought against Vladimir Zelezny, Director of private television NOVA, in connection with Zelezny’s critical remarks about alleged Czech Television practices.
- In May 2001, police reported that they were investigating the possible defamation of former Foreign Minister Josef Zielenic by current Foreign Minister Jan Kavan and Prime Minister Milos Zeman. In the same month, journalist Tomas Pecina was fined for failing to respond to police summonses for interrogation in connection with his articles criticizing police behavior. Miroslav Stejskal, Deputy Director of the Municipal Police force in Prague district 1, has reportedly begun an investigation of Pecina for the same writings.
- On May 20 and August 24, 2001, Vilem Barak was interrogated on suspicion of having committed the crime of incitement not to fulfill, en masse, an important duty imposed by law (in this case, not to participate in the national census), in violation of article 164 of the penal code. Barak had disseminated leaflets warning that personal information gathered by the 2001 census would be insufficiently safeguarded and urging a boycott of the census.
- In January 1998, police in Olomouc arrested and handcuffed television NOVA journalist Zdenek Zukal in connection with his 1997 reporting on alleged corruption in that locality. Zukal was originally charged with criminal defamation under article 206 of the penal code. One day before a presidential amnesty – which would have covered this offense – the charges were reclassified under article 174 and Zukal was charged with falsely accusing another person of a crime with the intent to bring about criminal prosecution of another, an offense that carries a maximum three-year prison sentence or eight years if the court determines the offender has caused substantial damage. No further prosecutorial action was taken until December 1999, when the case was revived. The case was still at trial as of June 2001 and, at the close of 2001, still appears to be before the courts. Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists have both protested this case.
In the decade since the Velvet Revolution, official censorship has completely ceased and the Czech Republic has witnessed tremendous improvements with respect to freedom of expression. At the same time, some problem areas remain. Leading political figures, such as current Prime Minister Milos Zeman and Speaker of the Parliament Vaclav Klaus (a former Prime Minister) are often openly hostile toward the media. Some politicians resort to criminal defamation charges as a means of silencing their critics; at a minimum, cries of “libel!” and “slander!” are popular substitutes for policy debate.
Finally, there are struggles in Czech society with the issue of “extremist” speech (emanating from both the far-right and the far-left) and the question of what are the acceptable parameters of public discourse. With respect to criminal defamation cases, President Vaclav Havel has pardoned many of those convicted. In other instances, those convicted have been given suspended jail sentences. Because such cases do not result in people actually going to prison for their words, they do not generate as much international scrutiny as, for example, the case of Zamencnik.
Nevertheless, the threat of imprisonment, the cost associated with defending oneself in a criminal trial, and restrictions associated with a suspended sentence (e.g., having to report to a parole officer, the possibility of being prohibited to write or publish, the possibility of being sent to jail without a new trial in the event that conditions of the suspended sentence are not met) all serve to chill free speech and the public debate necessary for a vibrant democracy.
Criminal defamation charges, however, are not the only laws used to restrict speech in the Czech Republic. There are also a number of laws that are not, per se, contrary to international norms but which may be used in ways that are inconsistent with the Czech Republic’s international commitments to free speech. One such law is the prohibition against spreading false alarm (article 199). Laws which prohibit “spreading false alarm” are justified as necessary to punish, for example, someone who falsely yells “fire” in a crowded theater or makes false bomb threats over the phone, acts which potentially or actually create a danger to the public and/or public panic.
Such laws, however, are not intended to gag journalists, quash political debate, or silence those who question the safety of the Temelin nuclear power plant. (Article 199 was used as a basis to deport Greenpeace demonstrators in July 2000 and a German environmentalist in March 2001.) Other criminal laws subject to abuse are the prohibition of defamation of a nation, race or group of people (article 197), the prohibition of incitement to hatred of another nation or race (article 198) and the prohibition against supporting a movement aimed at suppressing human rights or promoting national, racial, class or religious hatred (article 260). Such laws are generally justified as necessary to protect the most vulnerable minorities, and those who support them often point to the Czech Republic’s unhappy experiences with fascism and communism.
In addition, those who support such laws sometimes argue they are useful if not necessary tools to address the criticism that the Czech Republic has failed to do enough to combat racially motivated violence against Roma and others. In some cases, however, it appears that these laws are being used in ways that are not compatible with international free speech norms. In November 2001, a prosecutor in the Breclav region charged Roman Catholic Priest Vojtech Protivinsky with defamation of a nation, race, or group of people. In this case, the “group of people” were members of the unreconstructed, hardline Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia who were offended when Protivinsky actively called on people not to vote for them in upcoming elections. The case was cut short when President Havel pardoned Protivinsky.
In September 2001, David Pecha (case noted above) was charged with supporting a movement aimed at suppressing human rights, defamation and spreading false alarm. In June 2000, Michal Zitko, now 29, was charged with supporting a movement aimed at suppressing the rights and freedoms of citizens. His Prague-based publishing house, Otakar II, had issued a Czech-language edition of Mein Kampf. (Zitko had previously published the U.S. Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.) He was convicted later that year but, in February 2001, a higher court sent the case back to a district court for reconsideration in light of several errors identified by the higher court. In November 2001, Zitko’s conviction was upheld, and he was sentenced to three years in prison, suspended for five years, fined two million crowns, and ordered to report to a probation officer twice a year to prove that he is leading an orderly life.
Zitko, who has portrayed himself as an easy scapegoat for the government’s failure to prevent embarrassments such as the erection of the ghetto wall in Usti nad Labem, is appealing the decision. Sources include: Amnesty International; Article 19; Britske listy; the Committee to Protect Journalists; Czech News Agency; East European Constitutional Review; Freedom in the World (reports published by Freedom House); Index on Censorship; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and U.S. State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; World Press Freedom Committee. Relevant Czech Laws
News reports about persons charged with criminal defamation or “insulting” public officials, government offices or national institutions often do not cite the specific legal basis for the charges. In Czech Republic, the laws which appear to give rise to such charges include the following: Article 49 (1) (a) of the Simple Offenses Act provides that anyone who offends another person by insulting or exposing him or her to ridicule may be punished by a fine. Article 154(2) of the Penal Code prohibits gross insults or defamation of an organ of state administration in the exercise of its function or in connection with its function, punishable by up to one year in prison. Article 206 of the Penal Code prohibits the dissemination of false and discrediting information about another person, punishable by up to two years in prison. If the defamation occurs in the broadcast or print media, the punishment may increase to five years. In addition, someone convicted under this article may be banned from working as a journalist. Other Laws of Concern
The laws listed above are, on their face, inconsistent with international free speech norms. In contrast, the laws below are not, per se, in violation of international norms. Rather, they may be applied in a manner that unduly restricts free speech.
- Article 164 of the Penal Code prohibits incitement to commit a criminal act or not to fulfill, en masse, an important duty imposed by law, punishable by up to two years in prison.
- Article 165 of the Penal Code prohibits publicly approving of a crime or praising the perpetrator of a crime, punishable by up to one year in prison.
- Article 166 of the Penal Code prohibits assisting an offender with the intent of enabling the offender to escape prosecution or punishment, punishable by up to three years in prison.
- Article 174 of the Penal Code prohibits falsely accusing another person of a crime with the intent to bring about the criminal prosecution of that person. This crime is punishable by up to three years in prison or up to eight years of a court determines that the offender caused substantial damage.
- Article 197 of the Penal Code prohibits defamation of a nation, its language or a race or a group of inhabitants in the Republic because of their political conviction, religion or lack of religious faith, punishable by up to two years in prison or three years if committed with at least two other people.
- Article 198 of the Penal Code prohibits incitement to hatred of another nation or race or calls for the restriction of the rights and freedoms of other nationals or members of a particular race, punishable by up to two years in prison.
- Article 199 of the Penal Code prohibits intentionally causing the danger of serious agitation among a part of the population by spreading false, alarming information (sometimes translated as “scaremongering”), punishable by up to one year in prison. If the information is transmitted to the mass media, to the police or other state organ, the crime is punishable by up to three years in prison.
- Article 260 of the Penal Code prohibits supporting or propagating a movement aimed at suppressing human rights or which promotes national, racial, class or religious hatred, punishable by up to five years in prison. Punishment may be up to eight years in prison if the offender commits this act using the media, as a member of an organized group, or during a state defense emergency.
- Article 261 of the Penal Code prohibits publicly expressing support for a movement aimed at the suppressing human rights or which promotes national, racial, class or religious hatred, punishable by up to five years in prison.
- Article 261 (a) of the Penal Code prohibits publicly denying or approving or trying to justify Nazi genocide or other communist or Nazi crimes against humanity, punishable by up to three years in prison.
Note: After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia both inherited the former federation’s penal code. In the case of the Czech Republic, a new criminal law was adopted in 1993, retaining all the communist-era prohibitions on defamation. In 1994, the Czech Constitutional Court struck down those provisions of Article 102 which prohibited defamation of the parliament, the government, the constitutional court, and public officials. In 1997, Articles 102 (prohibiting defamation of the Republic) and 103 (prohibiting public defamation of the President) were repealed.
(1) In addition to the cases outlined here, news reports describe many other cases where prominent individuals are either the alleged victim or perpetrator of defamation, but the reports do not make clear whether the legal action was based on the civil code or criminal code.
(2) “Poll shows majority of Czechs blame US foreign policy for terror attacks,” Prague CT1 Television in Czech (September 22, 2001). Translation by Foreign Broadcast Information Service, September 23, 2001.