CSO report reveals covert use of biometric surveillance by Czech police
Government refusing to acknowledge international criticism regarding corruption
The Czech Republic has come under criticism for its long-standing disregard for corruption in the country. GRECO’s most recent report assessing countries’ compliance with the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption standards, published on 16th June 2023, found that the Czech Republic had satisfactorily met only three of 14 recommendations. Five of these recommendations were partially complied with, and the remaining six were not complied with at all. The latter include ensuring the prompt publication of meeting minutes in parliament to enhance transparency, establishing a code of ethics for parliamentary members, and enacting a law on lobbying.
In contrast to GRECO’s overall negative assessment of the report, the Ministry of Justice has publicly portrayed it as a “significant improvement.” Reacting to the Ministry’s assessment, Marek Chromý, senior analyst at Transparency International, stated, “The Ministry of Justice's response to the new report creates the impression that they may have read an entirely different document. The analysis clearly states that, on the whole, the level of implementation of GRECO’s recommendations is very low and disappointing.”
GRECO’s concerns were echoed in the European Commission's Rule of Law report. This report raised apprehensions about prolonged corruption investigations involving senior politicians, incomplete reforms, and ambiguities in parliamentary ethics rules.
Freedom of Assembly
Czech police have been secretly using facial recognition software for almost a year
On 12th July 2023, the Czech NGO Iuridicum Remedium (IuRe) released a report detailing the secret use of facial recognition software by the police. This software takes a photo of a person and compares it with images in two government registers to look for matches: one contains data from identity cards, the other from travel documents. Each photo in the registers is tagged with a unique identifier linked to additional information about the person, such as name, address and date of birth. This means that by simply uploading a photo, the police can not only identify the person but also access their sensitive information. This tool, named the Information System Digital Image of Persons (IS DPO), has reportedly been in operation since 22nd August 2022.
The CSO has raised concerns about the invasion of citizens’ privacy. Because any high-resolution photograph of an individual can be subjected to biometric analysis, the tool could be used for broad surveillance of individuals' activities. There are also questions about whether the police have conducted a proper assessment of the impact of IS DPO on citizens' privacy, as required by the Personal Data Processing Act. In response to these concerns, IuRe requested further information on the tool's use. Although they received a response, critical sections of the documents were redacted, thereby concealing vital information.
Pár čísel k systému na rozpoznávání tváří, který využívá česká policie:— Iuridicum Remedium (@iure_cz) August 28, 2023
📸 v referenční databázi je 19 666 787 fotografií
👮♀️ do systému má přístup celkem 73 osob
Nové dokumenty, opět z významné části začerněné, najdete na našem webu 👉 https://t.co/6LarU48AUo. pic.twitter.com/6Ls4GYFWun
On 20th July 2023, the police issued a statement claiming that they had thoroughly informed the Committee for Human Rights and Modern Technologies (which includes non-profit organisations and academics) about the use of biometrics. Additionally, the press release cited the legal basis for IS DPO, outlined in the provisions of § 66a of Act No. 273/2008 Coll. However, IuRe refuted both of these claims. The organisation clarified that, while a meeting with police representatives occurred on the 6th of October 2021, a year before the programme's initiation, there was no mention of the actual use of IS DPO. While the aforementioned provision permits the police to process digital photos from state registers, it does not specifically mention processing photos for biometric identification. Consequently, there are no parameters or regulations governing its use.
Před týdnem jsme zveřejnili informace, dle kterých @PolicieCZ již téměr rok využívá software na rozpoznávání tváří. Ve včerejším prohlášení PČR píše, že o nástroji opakovaně informovala Výbor pro lidská práva a moderní technologie. Není to pravda.— Iuridicum Remedium (@iure_cz) July 21, 2023
Více 🤜https://t.co/DowHHe5WkD pic.twitter.com/QsKtO6hlKq
Digital rights groups have emphasised that the use of such systems undermines the freedom of assembly, as people may perceive expressing discontent with governmental policies as risky and choose to stay home out of fear of retaliation.
Tensions between Ukrainian refugees and Romani people in Czechia
On 10th June 2023, a 23-year-old Roma man was fatally stabbed, and another was injured in Brno, a city in southeastern Czechia. The fact that the perpetrator was allegedly a Ukrainian was widely reported in the media. This led to a number of xenophobic comments online and exacerbated tensions between the Roma and Ukrainian refugee communities. Tensions escalated further when a Roma man was injured in another confrontation in Pardubice on 1st July 2023. While police have not confirmed this, media have again reported that the perpetrators were Ukrainians.
The media's reporting of these two incidents has exacerbated the situation. Gwendolyn Albert, a human rights activist, explains, “Instead of the media reporting on these altercations as altercations between men, they're being reported on as altercations between Romani people, who have been victimised, and the suspected perpetrators are said to be Ukrainian.” Additionally, Russian disinformation campaigns on social media have incited many far-right Czechs who feel economically burdened by Ukrainian refugees. This has also stirred discontent within the Romani community, where some believe that while the government provides significant support to refugees, locals do not receive comparable benefits.
These two incidents have prompted various protests, at times expressing anti-Ukrainian sentiment. Following the Brno stabbing, approximately 1,000 people gathered in the city centre on 17th June 2023. Although initially intended as a commemorative rally, anti-government and anti-Ukrainian sentiments emerged among the crowd. They chanted “we don't want them here,” criticising the government for accepting Ukrainian refugees and even urging their return. In response to the rally, President Pavel expressed concern over the remarks made during the demonstration. He also cautioned against making sweeping generalisations and escalating the situation into a national or racial issue.
The Pardubice incident also gave rise to a protest on the day after, 2nd July 2023, where hundreds of Roma people marched through the streets of Pardubice. Justice Minister Pavel Blažek deemed the protest illegal as it took place without approval from local authorities. He asserted that such demonstrations could potentially lead to social unrest. However, the police reported that there were no major conflicts or issues during the protest. On 21st July 2023, it was announced that an expert group would be established to address prejudice-motivated violence and counter anti-Ukrainian disinformation within Roma communities.
Violent protesters inspired by US Sovereign citizen movement storm courthouses
On 7th June 2023, demonstrations erupted both inside and outside the Prague 8 District Court during the trial of disinformation activists Patrik Tušl and Tomáš Čermák. The two men were charged with harassing a doctor and a biologist. A group of about 40 supporters of the defendants, led by Jana Peterková, disrupted the trial by shouting slogans and staging a protest on the ground. They cried out, “We need a larger hall!” and “The public is us! We demand our rights!” while insisting on a bigger venue for the trial. The supporters complained about court procedures and claimed that the court resembled a private company rather than a legal institution.
This group is associated with the Legitimate Creditors of the Czech Republic (LCVR), a faction that challenges the legitimacy of the 1993 division of Czechoslovakia, viewing the Czech government and its corresponding institutions as illegitimate. The group gained notoriety in May 2023 when they stormed the Prague Municipal Court during the appeal hearing of Jana Peterková. Peterková was contesting a sentence she faced for disseminating alarming videos during the COVID-19 pandemic, some of which alleged that the government sought to eliminate people through its vaccination programme. During the hearing, scores of Peterková's supporters gathered to express their discontent at being denied entry to the hearing chamber. The group then chanted "We are the law!" and "Gestapo, Gestapo," and eventually broke the courtroom door. As they attempted to enter the courtroom, the judge and court officials had to evacuate. When the police arrived, they forcefully detained two individuals. As the crowd dispersed, Peterková shifted blame onto the court and the judicial guard for failing to maintain order.
On 26th July 2023, another radicalised group stormed a Prague courthouse during a hearing against the aforementioned disinformation activist Patrik Tušl, who was already in prison for inciting violence against Ukrainian refugees. This time, Tušl was facing allegations of harassing a healthcare worker during the pandemic. This act of protest necessitated the intervention of heavily equipped police. This series of protests has been linked to the growing influence of the US-based “sovereign citizen” movement (SCM), which is now identified as a potential security threat by the Czech Interior Ministry’s Centre Against Hybrid Threats. The SCM ideology had limited traction in the country before, but over the past six months its impact has increased through a network of quasi-media and anti-system influencers.
Patrik Tušl: DO ULIC! DOSTAŇTE MĚ VEN! PODÍVEJTE SE NA IZRAEL.— Martin Bartkovský (@bartkovskym) July 26, 2023
To byla jeho poslední slova.
Libor Malý pokračuje v Zítkově škole zpochybňování právního státu. pic.twitter.com/Jf6ewPo2HI
In the US, the SCM is regarded as a domestic terrorist movement by the FBI, notable for its pursuit of an anti-government agenda that has included the use of violence. Up to this point, LCVR has emulated the non-violent aspects of SCM’s model. LCVR employs “bureaucratic terrorism” as its principal strategy to advance its goal of “restoring the stolen rule of law of the Czechoslovak Republic.” Similar tactics have been employed by Czech conspiracy theorists in the past, notably during the COVID-19 pandemic. Disinformation networks and anti-government influencers from both the radical right and left have begun to align themselves together in the aftermath of the Ukraine war, fuelling anti-government protests.
Greenpeace protest against expansion of coal mine
On 26th June 2023, Greenpeace activists demonstrated against the proposed expansion of mining operations at the Blina brown coal mine in northern Bohemia, during a general meeting of the energy company ČEZ. While brandishing banners with messages like "Don't Extend Mining in Blina" and "End Fossil Crimes," an activist delivered a speech urging an end to the mining extension. Their interruption persisted for 10 minutes until they were escorted out of the facility. Earlier, on 22nd June 2023, Greenpeace members from the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany scaled an excavator at the mine while displaying banners bearing the slogans "End Fossil Crimes" and "End Mining 2030." The extended licence currently lacks a specified expiration date, potentially allowing coal mining to continue up to 2035, contradicting the Czech government's commitment to phase out coal by 2033.
Well done to all the activists who oppose the big polluters and their destructive projects ✊ 🔥— Greenpeace International (@Greenpeace) June 27, 2023
Greenpeace activists from Czechia, Germany and Poland have occupied the Bílina coal mine and disrupted @cez_group's annual meeting to send them a clear message!#EndFossilCrimes pic.twitter.com/gPsBQRYk5C
Four more trade union protests against austerity package
On 19th June 2023, Josef Stredula, the leader of the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions (CMKOS), announced plans for four protests against the Government's austerity measures. As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, trade unions in Czechia have been on strike alert since May. CMKOS has put forward 12 amendments, including the reintroduction of electronic sales registration, projected to generate between 151 to 163 billion CZK. If their proposals are not accepted, Stredula indicated that another protest would be scheduled for September. Nevertheless, it is not anticipated that significant alterations will be made to the original package. CMKOS has suggested that President Pavel should facilitate a discussion between the government, employers and unions.
Freedom of Expression
New whistleblower law takes effect
On 1st August 2023, a new Whistleblower Act came into effect in the Czech Republic. This law now requires businesses to establish internal mechanisms that allow employees to report unlawful practices, ensuring that such reports are promptly and thoroughly investigated. Notably, the Act incorporates protective measures to prevent the misuse of these reporting channels. Transparency activists have expressed concerns about the prolonged timeline for implementing the law, as the government's delayed action resulted in a penalty of approximately 64 million koruna (equivalent to 2.7 million EUR) for missing the EU-mandated deadline for whistleblower protection, which was December 2021. Critics have also raised concerns about the absence of provisions ensuring the anonymity of whistleblowers. Those who wish to remain confidential while exposing wrongdoing by their employers, superiors or colleagues will need to use the dedicated portal provided by the Justice Ministry for reporting illicit activities.
New amendment to force ex-PM to sell media assets
On 16th June 2023, the Chamber of Deputies passed an amendment to the conflict-of-interest act aimed at limiting politicians’ influence on the media. This new amendment prohibits politicians from transferring their media assets to close associates or trust funds. Additionally, it bars media companies owned by politicians from receiving subsidies or investment incentives. The amendment builds upon a 2017 law that initially imposed restrictions on media ownership and access to subsidies. This legislation, often referred to as "lex Babiš," was widely believed to target former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who controlled one of the largest publishing groups in the Czech Republic—the Mafra group. Following the law's enactment in February 2017, the former prime minister placed his shares in his companies Agrofert (the parent company of Mafra) and Synbiol into trust funds overseen by his wife and lawyer. This action was subsequently deemed a conflict of interest by the European Commission.
The new amendment expands the law's scope to include the President, who will also be mandated to submit annual asset declarations. The law will now also apply to the ultimate beneficial owners of an entity—a development welcomed by anti-corruption agencies. Violators of this law may face a financial penalty of up to 3% of the relevant company's assets. Although the amendment garnered approval in the lower house with 85 votes in favour and 79 against, it must still be forwarded to the Senate and await President Pavel’s endorsement. If ratified, the amendment is likely to take effect in 2024, providing politicians with a 60-day window to comply with the new regulations.
Exiled Russian journalist denied access to press conference
On 6th July 2023, journalist Farida Kurbangaleeva, a Russian citizen in exile, was refused entry to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's press conference in Prague. Despite having accreditation and passing security checks, Kurbangaleeva was informed by a police officer that her accreditation had been revoked, thus preventing her from attending the conference at Prague Castle. While the spokesperson for the Czech President confirmed the security service's decision, no reasons were provided. Kurbangaleeva, renowned for resigning from a state TV channel in protest against the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, currently resides in Prague and contributes to various media outlets.
#Czechia: Exiled Russian journalist #FaridaKurbangaleeva's accreditation revoked for Zelensky's press conference at Prague Castle. #CFWIJ condemns the infringement of press freedom. We call on Czech gov to reverse the decision and ensure transparency in accreditation procedures. pic.twitter.com/qEAQT7tPUf— #WomenInJournalism (@CFWIJ) July 10, 2023
Cyber attack targets Czech public radio
On 22nd June 2023, the website of Czech public radio, Český rozhlas (Čro), experienced a significant distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) cyber attack, resulting in temporary inaccessibility. The attack took place as the radio station was preparing for a conference discussing the role of media in Ukraine, featuring Czech President Petr Pavel and Kyiv Mayor Vitalij Klitschko. While the source of the attack remained unclear, suspicions were raised due to its timing and target. The attack affected media files but did not disrupt radio broadcasts, and Čro Plus streamed the conference on YouTube. Despite the disruption, Čro's platforms were restored later that day. DDoS attacks overload servers, slowing down or crashing websites and impeding user access.
Czech authorities launch investigation into alleged Russian disinformation centre
In July 2023, Balkan Insight reported that Czech authorities are currently conducting an investigation into the Russian Centre of Science and Culture (RSVK). This centre is operated by the officially recognised Moscow state organisation Rossotrudnichestvo, which has been placed on the EU sanctions list for disseminating Russian war propaganda. Despite this, RSVK has continued to release Czech translations of this material. Last year, the centre's operator translated a Kremlin war propaganda pamphlet into Czech. There are ongoing discussions regarding whether RSVK should be included in the Czech national sanctions list.
Women’s rights and LGBTQI+ rights
Government proposes to ratify the Istanbul Convention
On 21st June 2023, the Czech government gave its approval to submit the Istanbul Convention for ratification in Parliament. Despite having signed the convention in 2016, the Czech Republic is among the few EU countries that have not yet ratified it. Although President Petr Pavel has openly expressed his support for ratifying the Convention, there is a division in the Chamber of Deputies on this matter. Conservative factions within the government are likely to attempt to block its ratification, arguing that the Convention could disrupt traditional family dynamics and interfere with family relations.
Gender equality declining in the Czech Republic
The Czech Republic has dropped 25 places in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. The report, released on 20th June 2023, ranks countries based on their gender parity in politics, health, education and employment. This year, the country ranked 101st out of 146 countries, making it the second-worst performing country in Europe. The Czech Republic's score is particularly low for political empowerment, primarily due to the limited representation of women in parliamentary and ministerial positions. Czechia also fares poorly in economic participation and opportunity, with factors like the gender pay gap and the underrepresentation of women on executive boards contributing to this result.