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Journalists condemn new law on police wiretaps

In a new report published this month on the press freedom climate in the Czech Republic, the International Press Institute (IPI) says many Czech editors voiced strong concern about a recent law which makes it illegal to publish any information acquired from police wiretaps.

IPI went to Prague in May on a two-day fact-finding mission and spoke to media professionals about defamation, broadcasting regulatory bodies, the efficacy of self-regulatory mechanisms and access to official information.

The "Press Freedom Audit Report: Czech Republic," explains that the new provision about wiretapping says that it is illegal to publish information conveying that wiretapping took place or information about individuals involved in particular crimes without the individual's consent.

One editor told IPI that such a strict interpretation of the law prevents reporting on allegations of domestic violence by a politician against his wife. As well, if the Prime Minister was shot, it would be illegal to report it without his permission, the editor said.

The restriction applies to both victims and perpetrators, says the report. Violations are punishable by sanctions including fines of up to 5 million Czech crowns (approximately €180,000) or imprisonment of up to five years. Many editors said they were now uncomfortable assigning reporters to cover stories that would put them at risk of ending up in prison. They feel this new law will lead to self-censorship of stories that are within the public interest. Several editors see this law as a tipping point with an increase in efforts by the government to control media, says IPI.

Overall the media is diverse and dynamic with healthy conditions for press freedom, says the report. But one editor told IPI that the Czech Republic's strong reputation for press freedom poses a risk of legislative restrictions being passed with little comment from international observers. Also, the influence of civil society has become weak with "democratic apathy" and the role of the media as a watchdog is more important than ever.

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