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Czech Republic: Minister Wins Case Against Publisher, Sets Stage For Battle On Media Freedom

  • Jeremy Bransten

A Prague City Court ruled yesterday that the publisher of a leading Czech weekly magazine must apologize to Karel Brezina, a minister without portfolio, for having printed satirical cartoons portraying him in sexual situations in its regular political comic strip. The case has raised press freedom concerns and presents the question of whether caricaturists, whose job it is to poke fun at public officials, should be protected from libel suits.

Prague, 25 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Czech Minister without Portfolio Karel Brezina -- the youngest member of the cabinet -- had long basked in his reputation of being a ladies man.

But when the cartoon strip "Zeleny Raoul" ("Green Raoul"), which appears in the popular weekly magazine "Reflex," portrayed him naked and engaged in various sex acts, Brezina took the publisher to court. In his civil suit, Brezina did not seek punitive damages but demanded a public apology.

Judge Dagmar Stamidisova ruled in his favor, finding that Brezina's representation in the nude was not compatible with how a politician should be portrayed.

Lawyers for Ringier Publishing, which prints "Reflex," say they will appeal. They see the case as precedent-setting for media freedom in the Czech Republic. Helena Chaloupkova, whose office represents Ringier in the case, explains:

"We expect that we will have to put forth our arguments before an exceptional court of justice, before the Supreme Court or the Constitutional Court. And it's an open question whether this will not need to be resolved elsewhere because this is a case where a point of view was expressed in an extreme fashion and now the question is whether such expressions are to be allowed or not."

The job of a satirist or caricaturist, by definition, is to make fun of politicians and other public officials. Does freedom of expression, as writer Salman Rushdie has noted, "cease to exist without the freedom to offend"?

Stepan Mares, author of the "Zeleny Raoul" comic strip, believes so.

"Yesterday, the court outlawed the drawing of naked politicians. In a month, maybe, we won't be able to draw politicians in bathing suits or in business suits. And then finally we won't be able to draw political caricatures at all, as was the case 15 years ago under communism."

Mares's boss is the editor in chief of "Reflex," Petr Bilek. He admits that, personally, he found the comic strip in question to be tasteless. But that is not the point, he emphasizes:

"If you're asking whether I personally enjoyed the particular comic strip in question, then I can tell you I didn't like it. I agree that in the normal sense of the word it wasn't very tasteful amusement. But 'Zeleny Raoul' is not here to be tasteful amusement. That is not what it's about."

Mares says he is happy when "Zeleny Raoul" makes people laugh, but the strip, he says, fulfills an important journalistic function:

"It is primarily focused on politics, and I think the strip to a large extent reflects the political situation in this country. The strip is intended to entertain, [to] make you laugh as well as draw attention to important political issues."

Petr Fiser is editor in chief of the editorial pages at "Lidove Noviny," a leading Czech daily newspaper. He says Brezina, as a public figure, is fair game, especially given his tendency to boast about his way with women.

"Mr. Brezina frequently boasted about his manliness in the media. There have been many articles in [the tabloid] 'Blesk' describing his sexual escapades. Mr. Brezina never protested and never sued 'Blesk.' He appeared on TV programs where the number of women he had slept with was discussed."

Fiser says Mares's comic strip featuring Brezina, no matter how crude, was not just lewd entertainment. It carried a message addressed to the government and to Brezina in particular:

"This government doesn't tolerate criticism by the media very well -- criticism which is often justified. I think the drawing of Mr. Brezina -- of the naked Mr. Brezina -- was meant to send a message that he should be doing his job instead of devoting his time to boasting about his manliness in the media."

Brezina's suit recalls a U.S. case, which was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and even inspired director Milos Forman to make a movie about it (1996's "The People Vs. Larry Flynt"). Nationally famous television evangelist Jerry Falwell sued Larry Flynt, the publisher of a pornographic magazine called "Hustler," after Flynt ran a parody of an advertisement portraying Falwell as a drunk, indulging in sexual relations with his mother in an outhouse. It would be hard to imagine cruder material, but Falwell's action against the magazine failed.

As the case proceeded through the appeal process, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III in the Federal Appeals Court for the 4th Circuit spoke of his repugnance at the representation of Falwell in "Hustler." But he noted that the most precious privilege of a democracy is "open political debate" and that "satire is particularly well-suited for social criticism because it tears down facades, deflates stuffed shirts, and unmasks hypocrisy."

In the end, Wilkinson concluded, "Nothing is more thoroughly democratic than to have the high and mighty lampooned and spoofed."

It will be up to higher courts to determine the ultimate limits -- if any -- on such spoofs in the Czech Republic. For now, despite yesterday's judgment, "Reflex" editor Petr Bilek says cartoonist Stepan Mares will continue to be given free reign to draw as he sees fit. He will not be limited in any way:

"Absolutely not. He has never had any guidelines, and there is no reason to start giving him guidelines now. He is absolutely free and this comic strip, 'Zeleny Raoul,' lives on this principle of freedom. The minute we try to set limits on it, the strip will start to die. And its survival -- it is now in its seventh year of publication -- is proof that no limitation should exist because every limitation would prevent the comic strip from doing what it must; which is every week: to provoke, surprise, to please someone, and anger someone."

Mares tells RFE/RL that he is already at work on a comic strip focused on the court case.