Reporters Without Borders today condemned the decision of the Prague Appeal Court on 6 February upholding a lower court ruling on 28 November that imposed a fine of 700 euros on journalist Sabina Slonkova for “damage to private life”.
News website Aktualne.cz in February 2008, days ahead of presidential elections, posted photos taken by a surveillance camera close to the capital’s Savoy Hotel showing a meeting between Jiri Weigl, head of President Vaclav Klaus’s office, and Miloslav Slouf, an influential political and financial lobbyist.
“The court ruling is completely baffling. The meeting was held in a public place. A campaign director is by definition a public figure in the run-up to an election. The report posted on the website Aktualne.cz is therefore of public interest. Sabina Slonkova only did her job and made legitimate use of her right to inform the public,” the worldwide press freedom organization said. “Convicting Sabina Slonkova does nothing to guarantee the protection of private life. The authorities were above all looking for the journalist’s sources. But the protection of sources, cornerstone of freedom of the press, is guaranteed under the constitution”, the organisation added.
The appeal court decision comes just days after a second vote in the national assembly on a law amending the criminal code and procedures that bans the publication of phone-tapping carried out by the police and publication of all information relating to the practice. Offenders face prison sentences of one to five years and fines of up to five million koruna (about 180,000 euros). “The appeal court decision to convict Sabina Slonkova is a perfect illustration of the risks that will be run by journalists from now on after the wire-tapping vote in the Assembly. If journalists are already being fined 700 euros for publishing photos taken in public places, one hardly dares imagine the fines for publishing ‘more sensitive’ information”, said Jean-François Julliard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders.
“We urge President Vaclav Klaus to veto the new law on publication of wire-tapping and not to endorse a law which will considerably obstruct the work of the investigative press”, he added.
Slonkova has done many investigations into the criminal underworld and organised crime and regularly comes under pressure because of it. Police in 2002 uncovered a plot to kill her that led to the conviction of five people, including a former high official in the ministry of foreign affairs.