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Czech Republic: Verdict Still Out On Merits Of Televised Trials

  • Kathleen Moore

Czech TV viewers were to be treated to an unusual premiere today: the country's first live televised trial. It's a high-profile case -- the appeal by a former high-ranking Foreign Ministry official who was convicted in June of conspiring to kill a journalist. But shortly after proceedings got under way today, the court decided not to go ahead with the live transmission after all. The broadcast had already caused controversy, with top politicians denouncing it as unethical or akin to a crass reality show.

Prague, 30 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The show didn't last long. Just after 9 o'clock today, Czech Television began broadcasting the country's first live televised trial. Karel Srba, a former top Foreign Ministry official, was appealing his eight-year sentence for conspiring to kill an investigative journalist.

But less than an hour later, the judges ordered the live broadcast off the air. The reason? Two of Srba's co-defendants argued it could harm their defense.

Chief Judge Jiri Lnenicka said television may carry the verdict live, and that cameras will still be allowed to record the trial.

"The panel agreed that the live broadcast could stress those accused in some way and could harm their right to a proper defense. We believe that the right to a defense stands above the right to inform the public about the trial through a live broadcast. So we decided that the [live] transmission of pictures and sound will be allowed only in that part of the public hearing when the right to defense will no longer be an issue, that means when a decision has been made and when the chairman of the panel will announce the decision and the reasons for it," Lnenicka said.

The live broadcast had already caused controversy. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla called it "unethical," while President Vaclav Klaus compared it to the communist-era show trials of the former Czechoslovakia.

Some journalists also expressed unease at the prospect of televised trials. Barbora Osvaldova heads the ethics commission at the Czech Journalists' Syndicate.

"In the case of media pressure, it could happen that the testimony might not be objective or the witnesses might act differently if the media are there. There's the problem of witnesses getting onto the live broadcast, even though they haven't done anything wrong and the media shows them during the trial," Osvaldova said.

But opinion is divided. Osvaldova says her commission discussed the issue yesterday and that members had different views.

Czech Television argued the broadcast would be in the public interest. And that it's perfectly legal -- it's up to the judges in each individual case to decide. Trials are mainly open to the public anyway -- why restrict access to the few who can get to the courtroom? Finally, the broadcaster argued, it would acquaint the wider public with the justice system itself.

Commentators on today's brief broadcast were, indeed, informative. They recapped the whole Srba case and told viewers what previous cases Lnenicka had tried. And they explained the judicial process from police investigation through to appeals trial.

Other countries have had live televised trials, too. Israel is considered the first, with its 1961 trial of former top Nazi official Adolf Eichmann. In the early 1990s, Romania televised live parts of a trial involving four aides to former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

The war crimes tribunal in The Hague broadcasts its initial appearances, opening statements and judgments live, and everything else is "almost live" -- with a 30-minute delay.

And many states in the U.S. allow live televised trials at the discretion of judges. There's even a U.S. cable channel, Court TV, dedicated to showing the most interesting trials, which is seen in some 80 million homes.

But many countries are wary of cameras in their courtrooms.

Britain doesn't allow any recording equipment in its courts. Germany's highest court recently upheld a ban on cameras from all court proceedings except verdict readings.

Today's case in the Czech Republic is similar to what happened in the U.K.'s inquiry into the death of weapons expert David Kelly, where television was able to carry the judge's closing statement live.

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington lawyer and the author of "TV or Not TV: Television, Justice and the Courts." He argues that government proceedings of all kinds should operate in the open.

"Experience historically indicates that where proceedings are closed, there's more of a chance for dictatorial and capricious conduct on the part of government officials. At the heart of it is a basic notion. If you stop to think about it, all people in all situations behave better when they're being observed than when they're not. So why would that not be the case in courts?" Goldfarb said. "In all of the cases in the U.S. since 1981, when the rules started to change, every state before they passed rules and regulations permitting cameras in courts conducted long surveys and began with a general hostility to the notion and with the general preconceived idea that somehow people will act out and misbehave and carry on because of the camera. [All the] studies concluded after years that those concerns were not, in fact, the case."

But in the U.S., too, some are opposed to cameras in the courtroom. They cite the excesses of the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson -- the former American football star accused of murdering his ex-wife -- in which jurors were inadvertently shown on television and attorneys were accused of showing off in front of millions of viewers.

Still, since then, other cases have been televised with no apparent ill effect on the proceedings. Goldfarb says as long as the cameras are discreet and certain rules are observed -- like not broadcasting private conversations -- they shouldn't interfere with the process of the court.

Today's trial in Prague was a first attempt at what Osvaldova says may be more televised trials. In the end, Judge Lnenicka this afternoon delivered the court's verdict live on Czech Television. Srba's eight-year sentence stands.