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Czech Republic: Marxist Runs Up Against Freedom Of Expression Laws

A Czech journalist is facing possible jail time for his hard-line communist articles that call for a revolution, in a case that is throwing the spotlight on the issue of press freedom. Media rights activists say using laws to limit speech -- no matter how distasteful that speech is -- is rarely successful and that only open discussion can defuse the power of extremist ideology.

Prague, 31 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Josef Stalin is a much-maligned hero. Democracy is a fairy tale. Socialism is inevitable.

To many people, these may sound like a collection of communist-era slogans from a bygone age. But it's exactly the sort of thing you might read in "Pochoden" ("Torch"), the official paper of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the Czechoslovak Labor Party.

"Pochoden" has put these and other communist diatribes on its website, all printed on a background of vivid red.

In one issue, the paper foresees the day when the people will rise up and "destroy the whole accursed imperialist system and liquidate all its oppressors, rich people and war-mongering murderers."

The Marxist-Leninist party advocates the overthrow of capitalism and rejects even the mainstream Czech Communists as opportunists and political moderates.

The views espoused in "Pochoden" are those of a small group of hard-liners. But they were enough to bother the police, who have just finished an investigation into journalist David Pecha, the author of many "Pochoden" pieces.

Investigators earlier this month handed the results of that probe to a state attorney. They recommended that charges be brought against Pecha for promoting a movement aimed at suppressing rights and freedoms and for spreading class hatred.

The state attorney has yet to decide, but if convicted, Pecha could face up to eight years in jail.

Vlastimil Flasar was the investigating officer in the case.

"In some of his articles, he was saying the social situation here is very bad, which you have to agree with. But his only solution was to stage a revolution, install a dictatorship of the proletariat, and introduce revolutionary laws."

Pecha is being prosecuted for promoting communism. More commonly, the law is invoked against people suspected of promoting fascism -- as in cases where the police detect a racial motive behind an attack on an ethnic minority.

Some observers say Pecha's case is problematic.

Petr Uhl was until recently the Czech government's commissioner for human rights. He says it's the first case he's heard of someone being prosecuted for spreading class hatred.

"This [part of the law] is what the investigator is abusing. He's prosecuting something that may be extreme, but is in no way criminal. There's no call for violent action, there's no call to destroy or even go beyond democratic norms. On the contrary, they are for a different proletarian democracy, a workers' democracy. In a democratic society, you can't punish someone for having a different idea of democracy than the parliamentary sort."

But Flasar says Pecha's actions were more serious.

"He gave an interview to a Moravian newspaper in October 1999, when he said that the situation here has to be changed, and if necessary, even by carrying out illegal acts and armed conflict."

So how would a case like this be dealt with in countries with a longer tradition of freedom of speech?

Marilyn Greene is the director of the World Press Freedom Committee in the U.S.

"It would not likely occur in the U.S. Under the first amendment [of the U.S. Constitution], limits on free press are very, very few. There would have to be proof that there was clear and present danger created by expression of these views and it's very seldom that this happens. But I would prefer not to compare [it] with the situation in the U.S. and refer instead to the UN declaration on human rights, which is universal and global. It's not Western, Eastern, Asian or anything else, and it says very clearly that there should be freedom of opinion and expression."

Greene says that her organization has opposed formal efforts by the Western countries administering parts of the former Yugoslavia to impose limits on press commentary on racial and ethnic issues.

"By trying to forcefully repress discussion of issues that are divisive you don't really remove any of those feelings, you merely drive them underground where they very likely will remain in a more violent form."

The U.S. tradition is to allow any expression of ideas -- however ugly or unpalatable.

Rohan Jayasekera works at the Index on Censorship in London, which monitors press freedom.

He says that the rough equivalent in the U.K. of the law used in Pecha's case would be one making it illegal to commit acts inciting racial hatred:

"In the U.K., if a case was to be successfully brought against the journalist, I think he would have to have a direct link to a party whose links with violence have been clearly proven. Quite probably the role of the publishers in that activity would have to be proven, in addition to the actual fact of publication. "

Jayasekera recalls a famous failed censorship case in the 1980s when the British authorities banned members of Sinn Fein -- a political party in Northern Ireland with links to the Irish Republican Army -- from appearing on television.

That attempt drew widespread criticism and created a bizarre cottage industry for actors hired to dub the voices of Sinn Fein's leaders.

"It's my view that this kind of opinion is never effectively defeated by censorship, it has to be tackled head on, confronted, and examined. The nature of these views has to be dissected and dismissed by reasoned argument. You can't silence views or change people's minds by censoring."

Though the Czech Republic's Uhl believes Pecha's case should not come to court, he also does not see it purely as a freedom of speech issue.

"Freedom of speech should be limited in a democratic society. A society that does not limit it would contravene democratic principles. Here in Europe, more than in Britain or the U.S., we have historic experience of what it looks like to have campaigns hounding Roma or Jews."

But in this case, he says, Pecha should not be prosecuted for promoting a dangerous movement, because that movement barely exists.