Naming the names

There is a new law coming to force in the Czech Republic that is going to complicate work for the Czech journalists to a considerable degree (which no-one would be too concerned about) and at the same time limit what the public will be allowed to know. It deals with naming the names.

The motivation for the law is commendable in as far as it seeks to protect underage victims and victims of violent crimes from being dragged through newspapers (it has also other, possibly less commendable aims). However, the extent of the protection is such that it borders on harsh and, frankly, in some cases impracticable.

We are not alone in having strange rules when it comes to naming the names. Watching the “court case of the century” in neighbouring Austria, the case of Josef Fritzl, is a study in absurdity when the Austrian media are allowed to use only “Josef F.” as they write about the accused. Some of them do, some of them do not. English version of Wikipedia has an entry called Josef Fritzl. German Wikipedia calls the same entry “The Criminal Case in Amstetten” (with Josef F.) – which has among its references this BBC page. Nobody prosecutes anyone for going either way, probably simply because it is such a mess.

Everybody in Austria must know the surname is Fritzl, his family members have already been given different identities, and are not appearing in court, there probably are not many “Josef Fs” in Amstetten, where he comes from, the media have printed or broadcast pictures (some of the Austrian media started to pixelate his face before his four day trial was over), but “Fritzl” must stay “F.”.

The reason for such an approach is in a way relevant for the new Czech law. It goes that as everyone is prohibited from publishing anything that would lead to identify victims of crimes, one cannot publish even the name of the accused, because it can be argued that by publishing the name of the accused you are in fact making the identities of his/her victims known, because in most such cases there is quite a strong connection between the two. No doubt about it in Joseph F´s case.

In the UK, you cannot name officials, even when they are official spokesmen telling you officially and on the record the position of the UK Government. In Germany even when Chancellor Angela Merkel held a press conference with visiting non-German EU journalists shortly before German Presidency of the EU a few years back, it was declared “on deep background” meaning no quotes, no names. But, of course, there is a group photo of the journalists with Angela Merkel, taken after this press conference that “never happened”.

In France in criminal cases any information is legally “out of bounds” until the case comes to court. So the police tell you anything you need for your story. Except for their names. Of course naming the minors is out of bounds for anyone there as it is in many countries.

At the Czech News Agency we have, I think, pretty strict internal rules regarding victims of crimes. We would not identify (in text or picture) a minor – unless asked by the police or by the parents to help in tracing a missing person. We would not name a victim of sexual crime – unless she/he agrees. We would not identify victims in many cases. However, under the new law, this no longer seems to be sufficient.

It is, in fact, several laws with different sanctions but the same purpose. First no police wiretapping can be published in a way that would identify persons concerned. In the last few years publishing police wiretaps has developed into a kind of cottage industry in the Czech Republic as different interest groups fought for influence and journalists investigated. Indeed, giving or even selling the wiretaps to outsiders, including journalists, is illegal already.

But trying to figure out which of your police colleagues has leaked the wiretap is probably too much work (at least no-one has been charged so far after several years of wiretaps having been published for the first time). So now the police have a huge target that cannot hide – the media. We could come to the situation that a journalist that published a wiretap goes to jail (for up to five years) but the police agent who leaked it does not (the journalist has even legal right to protect his/her source).

The approach might be strange but the law itself is clear. Much less so in the other cases it covers – naming the names of any victim of a crime, if he/she is under 18, and victims of 34 different criminal offences no matter what their age is. It brings these cases not only under protection of the Criminal Code but also the Data Protection Act. And then it becomes interesting.

With children, there were several high-profile cases when either the police or the parents asked the media and through them the public for help with search when a child went missing. Unfortunately in all cases the children were found dead. After April 1st the public will never find out. Or only in the case when both the publisher and the journalists would be willing to pay up to five million Czech crowns fine each.

According to Czech newspaper Lidove noviny, it will be illegal, for instance, to name a politician when an attempt was made on his/her life (article, in Czech, here). The case is, hopefully, theoretical but this same newspaper noted that it did report in 1923 when an anarchist killed the then Czech Finance Minister. It would not be allowed to do anything of the sort should anything similar happen in the future – only a story without a name and any identifying facts would be allowed.

The author uses another well known case to illustrate his point – that of a former government minister hitting publicly his successor in the office (a huge Youtube hit here). You would have to watch it on Youtube, because no Czech television would be allowed to broadcast such explosive stuff.

And as any keen reader of the Good Soldier Švejk (Schweik) would recall, the very first sentence of the book is: “So they´ve killed (the archduke) Ferdinand, Mrs. Miller.” This would not be possible under the new law. Poor Švejk would not know that the successor to Austrian throne was murdered in Sarajevo, because no-one would be allowed to tell him for fear of prosecution. So the first sentence would probably be: “I wonder who was killed in Sarajevo, yesterday Mrs. Miller. Strange, too, that we did not hear anything about Ferdinand, who went there yesterday? Wait – you don´t suppose….”

There are other much less internationally known cases that would create problems. There was a murder of a son of a Prague entrepreneur last Autumn. His funeral was one of the largest in Prague ever. Everything was reported about the murder with all the names. The court case with his alleged murderer starts a few days after the new law comes into force. We do not know whether we are or are not allowed to name the victim.

A man working for the Goverment of the day was convicted several years ago for plotting against a well known Czech journalist in order to have her killed. We probably would not be allowed to use her name without her prior written consent.

When we analysed the law we came across dozens of cases from recent past where we have solved the “naming the names” issue to the best of our editorial standards and with a view to fulfilling our task to inform the public. Under the new legal rules, we will no longer have the (near) certainty.

And neither have the officials tasked to enforce the law. I spoke with one of them recently. I was told that they will move fast and hard, simply in order to get the first few cases to courts very quickly so that some binding guidance from the courts is available. Well, many of us on this side of the fence hope that we not will have to pay five million crowns (or five years in prison) for officials to have their guidance.