Journalist Tomáš Pecina, a human rights and media specialist for the investigative Czech-language Internet daily Britské listy, has been fined by the Czech police CSK 10,000 (roughly USD 248, an average monthly salary in the Czech Republic) for refusing to report for interrogation to "explain his critical articles about the police."
The fine is an indication that the police will continue harassing Pecina, after he refused to comply with three successive poorly worded summons for interrogation—Pecina has appealed two of them.
Since Pecina has "avoided interrogation," it is very likely that he can now be placed in detention where the average time spent in the Czech Republic is nine months. In the Czech Republic, defendants can be held for up to four years in pre-trial detention by law. After receiving notification of the fine from the police on 30 May 2001, Tomáš Pecina responded,
It is incompatible with the principle of freedom of speech, guaranteed by the Constitution, that the Czech police should demand of journalists to explain their critical articles. The constitutional principle of freedom of speech is legally superior to the provisions of the Czech Police Law (No. 283/1991) as well as to the Penal Code and police authorities must never behave in such a way as to curtail individual civic freedoms, guaranteed by the Constitution. I refuse to explain my Ladronka articles to the Czech police in any way. This is an expression of my will to avail myself of my fundamental human rights, not a criminal offence punishable by a fine.
It is a litmus test of any democratic society to examine how its authorities deal with those who espouse minority views. In his articles, Pecina has systematically argued that a democratic society must not suppress minority views or break the law to silence those who defend them.
Accusations of slander
The Czech police have allegedly harassed Pecina because he published a series of articles in Britské listy that were critical of the Prague Municipal Police. Pecina contests that the police forcibly cleared the Ladronka squat in Prague in November 2000.
In response to the articles, Miroslav Stejskal, deputy director of Municipal Police for Prague 1, has initiated criminal proceedings against Tomáš Pecina for slander. According to the Czech Penal Code, slander is a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years imprisonment and/or by forbidding the offending journalist to practice his/her profession for a fixed period of time.
While it is undoubtedly an inalienable right of any citizen to sue any journalist for slander in a civil lawsuit, to instigate criminal proceedings for slander is a regrettable throwback to the Communist era.
The Ladronka squat on Tomanova Street, in Prague-Brevnov was a centre of alternative culture. Its organisers had an official contract for the use of the premises. The owners of the building disputed the validity of the contract and the matter was placed before the courts. But the case was pre-empted by the local authority. Before a verdict could be reached, Municipal Police units were sent in to clear the premises, which they did rather brutally, as these photographs testify.
As Tomáš Pecina reported last November, by forcibly clearing Ladronka, Prague Municipal Police broke the law on several counts. Primarily, the Municipal Police have no lawful right to organise themselves into anti-riot units because they are little more than "traffic wardens." On the basis of Pecina's article the police and the municipal authorities started criminal proceedings against these infringements of the law, however the investigation was later dropped under political pressure.
Instead, the Britské listy journalist—who drew attention to the infringements of the law by the units of the Municipal Police—has been charged with slander. Miroslav Stejskal, the deputy head of the Municipal Police, argues that "Tomáš Pecina, without any evidence and documentation, maintains that members of the Municipal Police have committed criminal offences and have stolen property belonging to persons who illegally dwelt on the Ladronka farm."
In defense of investigative journalism
But Pecina's arguments are factual and it is strictly based on interpreting the law. There is overwhelming evidence to corroborate his contention that the police committed criminal acts. With regard to the accusation of theft, Mr Stejskal's charges are based on the following passage from an article by Tomáš Pecina, published in Britské listy on 10 November 2000:
The whole police raid against Ladronka was carried out in an unprofessional, underhanded way. This can be seen from the fact that in the afternoon, the demonstrators caught one employee of a building firm [working in conjunction with the police] putting coils of their own cabling away into his own van! He admitted that what he was doing was wrong and apologised immediately. But the suspicion that the members of the police and the people from the Municipal Office have similarly divided other personal property, owned by the squatters, among them, as "war booty," remains and if a proper police protocol about the seizure of these personal belongings does not exist, this could have far reaching consequences for the Town Hall.
This is not a matter of overarching "police persecution," but a matter of vindictiveness of a group of local policemen and politicians who cannot stand free journalism and are trying to prevent independent journalists from examining their actions.
If the whole matter goes to court, the case would undoubtedly collapse because there is reliable and overwhelming evidence for all that Pecina has written, including photographs, videos and witnesses. A trial might even result in criminal proceedings against the authorities that, illegally, ordered the Ladronka Municipal Police raid, last November. However, it is intolerable that Czech law allows harassment of the potential defendant in the meantime. It is quite likely that Tomáš Pecina could spend months in detention.
The Czech Helsinki Committee has written to the Czech chief of police, demanding explanation of Pecina's harassment. There has been no forthcoming reply. Jan Jarab, the Czech Government Human Rights Officer has expressed deep concern over the case and has offered to make a public statement in support of Mr Pecina. The Office of the Czech President Václav Havel has refused to help in the matter. The London headquarters of Amnesty International is now monitoring the case.
Jan Čuílk, 4 June 2001
Further details in English can be read in Jan Čulík's November 2000 article Meter Maid Commandos.
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