- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
This year, Czech lawmakers proposed two amendments: one that threatened free speech, and one that might help protect it during and after 2017.
First, the threat: In mid-November, a group of 64 Czech lawmakers proposed amending the country’s criminal code to make it illegal to “defame” the president. The amendment would prosecute “whoever publicly defames the president of the republic, or hinders the execution of his powers, and thus denigrates his reputation.” Lawmaker Zdenek Ondracek, member of the Communist Party, said the law intends to return respect to the country, that it may no longer be “a nation of boors.”
However, Czech President Milos Zeman could himself be said to be contributing to the boorishness of the nation. He has repeatedly put forth rhetoric supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin; refused to grant an award to Holocaust survivor Jiri Brady because his nephew, the minister of culture, met with the Dalai Lama; and generally has invoked the ire of many fellow Czechs — precisely the kind of ire the amendment would render illegal.
And that is not supposed to be the point of defamation laws, Office of Security Cooperation in Europe representative Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement. “Defamation laws should not be tools for politicians and those in authority to silence critical voices,” Mijatovic said. “On the contrary, public figures should withstand a higher degree of scrutiny and criticism because of their public roles.”
Zeman himself has not commented on the amendment, but Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka spoke out against it — even though it’s backed by some members of his own party, the Social Democrats. The amendment, Sobotka said, could be used to crack down on criticism.
But, then, this is hardly the first time Sobotka and Zeman have publicly disagreed. After serving as chairman of the Social Democrats for almost a decade, Zeman lost a presidential bid in 2003 and feels “betrayed by groups of his Social Democrats, which by that time included today’s PM Bohuslav Sobotka,” Jakub Janda of the Prague-based think tank Evropské Hodnoty told Foreign Policy in an interview.
Just how bitter their rivalry remains is unclear. Janda said Zeman is looking for revenge against Sobotka, and the two officials periodically clash on foreign policy and other issues. But Michal Vít, a research fellow at Prague’s Europeum, told FP he believes Sobotka and Zeman are trying to calm relations.
On the proposed amendment against free speech, both Janda and Vít agree it is unlikely to pass when lawmakers vote on it later this month. That does not mean Zeman’s antics are to discontinue: Janda predicts that Sobotka and Zeman will go on hating each other until legislative elections in October 2017.
Nor does it mean that free speech, and particularly a free press, is safe in the Czech Republic. Sobotka is not expected to keep his position as prime minister after next October, while Zeman will be president until 2018. The next PM is expected to be Andrej Babis of the populist ANO 2011 party. Babis is currently the most popular politician in the country. He is also, Janda explained, is an oligarch who owns about half of Czech media.
Vít noted that Babis does not himself tell his journalists what to print, and that they decide whether to run certain stories. But, as the Economist pointed out after Babis purchased a major publishing house in 2013, one does not need to explicitly run propaganda to discredit the opposition — his employees’ writings may be swayed by his influence. “You can guess,” Janda told FP, “what it means for the media debate and scrutiny.”
That brings us to the second amendment — the one that might protect free speech in 2017 and beyond. On Tuesday, the lower house of Parliament amended a bill to limit politicians’ business interests — and prevent them from pursuing possession of power over the media.
Photo credit: MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images