Nezavisle ceske elektronicke noviny

Winter 1997


Europe v. USA
Freedom of the press
by Josef Schrabal

From Constitution of the Czech Republic

Freedom of the press is guaranteed 

and can be limited only by law						l

Everything in our lives is relative and so is the "so called" freedom of the press. The meaning of freedom means different things to different people.

On December 13, 1995 the Freedom Forum held a conference Mapping the Future on the development of independent media in Central and Eastern Europe. The keynote speaker was Michael Zantovsky, then the Czech ambassador in Washington, now newly elected senator in the Czech Republic and chairman of senate's Foreign Relations Committee.

"Inviting a government official to speak about independent media is always a risky business and one generally best avoided" warned Zantovsky in his opening remarks and continued to describe the flourishing media in now "liberated" Central Europe under the constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press which can be limited only by a law.

"Since the Czech Republic has the freedom of the press that you alluded in your remarks, why do you feel that you need a press law?", asked CNN correspondent Bernard Kalb (author of the "Reliable Sources")

"That is a very good question," Zantovsky answered. "There is a very large segment of journalists and commentators and opinion leaders who think that we don't. And I am not persuaded that we do. I believe with a number of other people that if the legislation covered specific rights of journalists and rights to protect sources, there would be some merit to such law." (We should remember that Zantovsky, as a press secretary to the Czech president Vaclav Havel, in the summer of 1990 on the press conference, he declared that "secret of the State" - that time a list of collaborators with the communist StB police - must be preserved and that journalist who would publish it should be jailed.)

The world inside out

This concept expressed by Zantovsky then and now is typical of Europe. It goes back to 1789, to the French revolution and its Declaration of human and citizen's rights. Paragraph 11 declares that

Free communication of thoughts and ideas is one of the most noble rights. Therefore every Citizen can write, speak and publish freely, besides that, he must be responsible for any misuse of this freedom in cases and circumstances stated by law.
Accordingly it is the lawmaker controlling the definition of the "misuse" and then how and to what degree such (penal) law is to be enforced

One of these laws protects the head of government. This medieval hanging crime was to protect not only the monarch and all his offices but even the symbols of authority. With democratization of the countries this protection extended to the ruling class. The first law protecting the president showed up in France in 1881. Today the protection further extends to all branches of government, courts, police, institutions and in many countries also to industry

When, in 1964 president De Gaulle was passing in an open limousine the Champs Elise in Paris, one of the bypassing citizens remarked "huu-huu" which is said in French has meaning of a light insulting character. He was instantly arrested but then, the next day released. There is a large number of such and similar incidents all over the world but this case is frequently being cited now in the post-communist Central Europe trying to allude that they are only following a recent example of a "free", "democratic", "western" nation. Similar laws exist also in Norway, Austria, Germany, Spain and elsewhere.

The French concept spread further to french Africa where there are several journalists imprisoned. Near the shore, three journalists are being jailed for writing in a satirical article humorously accused their president for bringing "bad luck" to their football team. Another two newspapermen are sitting in jail for disclosing that president wanted to nominate his men to the senate. In Russia, when a commentator wanted to point out that ministry of defense is more interested in cars than in his official duties, got one year for calling him "king Mercedes". Producer of a television program is being prosecuted for defamation of the president Jelcin. In the Czech Republic, during the last two years three persons were prosecuted and freed on special request of president Vaclav Havel. Another was just recently convicted by the court in Ostrava, heavily fined which would prevent him from further publishing and is applying to president Havel for amnesty.

The reverse is true in the United States. While an average citizen enjoys protection from personal attacks and untrue insulting publicity, the president, politicians and similarly situated public persons have no protection on the ground that, as public figures, they can protect themselves having access to the media.

What is not specifically released, it is "the secret of the State".

Very frequently, the freedom of the press is being oppressed by concealing valid information. Before the 1990 elections in Czechoslovakia a list of collaborators with the StB (communist police) leaked out to the press. Journalists were warned that if they publish it, they will be prosecuted and jailed for disseminating a "secret of the State". The rule prevails in Europe and elsewhere that what is not specifically released, it is a secret of the State.

In most western countries and in the US it is unheard of to prosecute a journalist for publishing leaked out information. From attack on the security of the State were prosecuted Lubor Kohout and Jan Vavra for writing in the Czech weekly about organizational scheme of the Czech intelligent service BIS. Similarly seven other journalists were investigated.

None of these "democracies" have any law similar to the US Freedom of Information Act nor laws protecting journalist from disclosing sources of information such as in the State of New York.

State's secrets of the industry

The veil of secrecy extends from the government also on the industry at large. The local stock market is greatly affected by having no information similar to that required in the US. It scares foreign investments away and it is a breading ground for fraud and swindle.

The Fortune magazine (Dec.23, 1996) describes in "The Pirates of Prague" the ventures of Victor Kozeny who founded in the Czech Republic a mutual fund named after his alma mater Harvard, how he was trying to get information on privatized industry and not being able to get it, he was trying to buy it and was caught in the Wallis government sting operation. Then investing in the "Wild East" on a conclusion "if we can't get enough information so we're going to sell" and $30 millions of the $100 million Harvard Fund assets was frittered away.

More significant, now, after the Fortune's magazine disclosure, many of the local media just briefly mentioned that they knew about this and many other similar frauds for a long time. Yet, they didn't care to write about and to warn others.

Control of the press by news agencies.

There are many other methods how to prevent and modify information and oppress dissemination of free thoughts and ideas. It is well known that two reporters with different backgrounds and different views will write two different stories about the same event. For this reason many of the different nations maintain their "national" news agencies upon which the local press relies. These agencies supply the local media with all the news which are then locally rewritten by their local subscribers and represent the particular view of the "national" news agency greatly funded by the State.

In the Czech Republic the old "national" CTK (Czech Press Bureau) dominates the media. One reason is that it has professional reporters and good management. The other reason is that the only competitor CTI is struggling with very limited resources, financial difficulties and problems.

Freedom of the press belongs to those who own it

Other control over the press is exercised through media ownership. These media claim to be independent and free, never telling a journalist what and how to write. But they employ only those having the owner's point of view and accepting only articles with that point of view. They often claim that they publish an opposing point of view which in fact then does not fully, and frequently even not partly, represents the true opposing view.

In the Czech republic all the daily and regional papers are in foreign ownership with exception of two (of which one is a ? and the other is formerly official communist Rude Pravo/ The Red Law now renamed as The Law, now claming to be independent.) The ownership is apparent from the political and international relation line of the individual papers even that they all claim to be totally independent.

If there are any good independent journalists left in the Czech Republic they are mostly unemployed for being unwilling to serve the particular interest of the owner. Shortage of financial resources

Shortage of financial resources is another way how to eliminate opposing ideologies. As matter of fact that is the reason why nearly all the post-communist papers in the Czech republic were purchased with foreign money. There is only a handful of periodicals remaining independent with great financial problems while others ceased publishing.

The distribution of periodicals is performed by companies practically holding a monopoly over distribution of all the periodicals and with it control the income of the publisher. In many instances such a company was accepting the periodicals for distribution, receiving payments from retailers and from subscribers for it but never paying the publisher, causing financial difficulties and finally a sell-off or terminating publishing activity of such periodical. Among many other publications, amazingly one such periodical was the weekly Necenzurovane noviny (Unvcensored Herald) which was the extreme opposition to today's communist sympathizers and the only publication which had the guts to publish the previously mentioned prohibited list of the StB (communist police) informers. In Slovakia the well known anti governmental daily SME was and presently is experiencing this sort of financial difficulty too.

Oppression by licensing

The only media in American ownership (CETV) is the television station Nova in Prague. After struggling for three years it finally became quite profitable and watched by about 70% of the TV viewers. Now, while the operating license has left several years to renewal, it is being challenged by many demanding reexamination and cancellation of the Nova's operating license.

New technology brings bright future to the freedoms

The internet is a new media making dissemination of free ideas quite easy. In the Central post-communist Europe accessing the net was first so expensive that it was not affordable to an individual. An Italian cable company NewtonIt spread all over the Europe and introduced local telephone internet access in about 55 Czech cities at very reasonable rates similar to those in the US. This caused an explosion of the internet users similar to that in the US. There are numerous home pages of even low level schools and many individuals. There is even one individual publishing in Prague an electronic daily named "Pes" (The Dog) symbolizing the American mission of the press as a watchdog. This daily has correspondents all over the world and became daily reading by all those thousands Czechs having access to the net in and out of the Czech Republic.

But the oppression of disseminating free ideas is coming. In the US the new amendment to the Communication Act was found unenforceable on the grounds of the First Amendment unconstitutionality "Congress shall make no laws . . .". On November 1, 1996, nearly an identical law was signed by George E. Pataki, Governor of the State of New York and is being challenged in the Federal court. The complainant alleged that the internet has nearly 10 millions host computers in 159 countries with about 40 millions users which is estimated to reach 200 millions in 1999 and that all would be affected by this restrictive law. Similar new law restricting internet communications is just now being considered in Germany.

January 16, 1997

Josef Schrabal
549 Riverside Drive
New York NY 10027
(212) 663 3987 - FAX (212) 666 8444


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