New government attempts to tackle disinformation
Former Prime Minister Andrej Babis acquitted of fraud
On9th January 2023, Former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis was acquitted of fraud just four days before the first round of the Czech Republic's presidential election, in which he was a leading candidate. As previously reported by CIVICUS Monitor, Babis was accused of fraudulently claiming an EU subsidy for a leisure resort called Stork's Nest, which is owned by his conglomerate Agrofert. The trial started in March 2022, and prosecutors had asked for a prison sentence and a fine of CZK 10 million ($443,000). However, against expectations, the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence of criminal activity. Prosecutors are expected to appeal.
Petr Pavel wins in presidential elections against Babis
On 28th January 2023, former general Petr Pavel was elected as the fourth President of the Czech Republic after winning the second round of elections. Pavel's victory over Andrej Babis with 58 per cent of the vote is the largest margin since direct presidential elections were established in 2013. Babis ran an aggressive campaign branding Pavel, who once headed the Czech army and the NATO Military Committee, as a "warmonger" for his staunch support for Ukraine. This campaign appears to have mobilised Czechs committed to democratic values as Pavel's victory saw a record turnout of over 70 per cent for the second round of the election.
Soaring prices hit vulnerable households
As 2022 drew to a close, consumer prices continued to escalate at an alarming pace, with the consumer price index climbing by 15.8 per cent. The upsurge in prices is expected to persist in the coming year, creating political tension. The dramatic spike in prices was a result of the energy crisis, primarily caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, resulting in inflation averaging 15.1 percent for the entire year, with vulnerable households, including many members of the Roma community, being hit the hardest.
Interior Ministry warns about possible radicalisation
In early February 2023, the Czech Interior Ministry released a report on extremism. The report warns that some groups in the country have the potential to threaten its democratic foundations. The report says that a significant number of individuals dissatisfied with the political system could be radicalised toward extremist views. It added that there are also online communities of neo-Nazis who are ready for lone-wolf terrorist activity.
New government commissioner for Roma community affairs
In December 2022, the Czech government created the new post of government commissioner for Roma community affairs in an attempt to address the complex problems of the country’s Roma minority. Lucie Fukova, who has work experience in both the non-profit and the state sector, was appointed as the first Roma commissioner. Fukova will coordinate the efforts of ministries and ensure that funds allocated by the Czech Republic and the European Union are used effectively. Concerns were raised by Roma people that they were not consulted on the appointment of the commissioner. The Roma are one of Europe's largest and most disadvantaged minorities.
Later on 23rd January 2023, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) conducted a periodic review of the human rights situation in Czechia. During the review, UN members offered initial recommendations on how the country could enhance its human rights. The Czech Republic received criticism for its treatment of the Roma minority, who make up about 2,5 per cent of the population, and also for weak policies related to domestic and sexual violence.
Wolt couriers protest against reduced net hourly income
On 14th February 2023, dozens of Wolt couriers protested in Prague against the company's recent changes to their remuneration system. The demonstration, supported by the head of the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions, claimed that income had dropped by about 20 per cent. Some Wolt couriers said their net hourly income was about 35 to 65 Kc, or less than 3€, after covering all the charges. Wolt management said the drop in earnings was only temporary and had already bounced back to its former level (about 250 to 300 Kc per hour). The couriers launched an online petition calling for greater financial compensation and additional employment guarantees. An earlier protest had been held on 1st February 2023.
Criminalising fake news
The Czech Republic is considering making the spread of fake news illegal in its efforts to tackle disinformation. The country saw a surge in disinformation networks during the pandemic and since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The government has been criticised for being slow to act on pre-election pledges to fight the problem, but is now putting together an action plan that may involve blocking disinformation websites and allocating funding for reliable media outlets and NGOs tackling disinformation.
The plan has been met with criticism from media scientists and human rights defenders. Professor Jan Jirák, a media theorist, cautions against using censorship as a means of controlling opinion and endangering the principle of free expression. He believes that a political or strategic situation could arise that would necessitate limiting freedom of expression, particularly during times of war. However, it is essential to make it clear that such measures represent a curtailment of free speech and would only be temporary.
FOE lawsuit rejected
On 23rd January 2023, non-profit organisations Institute H21 and Open Society reported that the Prague Municipal Court had rejected an administrative lawsuit filed by them against the Ministry of Defence for blocking several disinformation websites in 2022. The court ruled that the state's action was not "illegal interference" within the meaning of the law. However, the court acknowledged that the blocking of websites affected freedom of expression and the right to information. The National Centre for Cyber Operations at the Military Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence had sent a letter to the CZ.NIC association requesting access to specific disinformation sites be disabled. CZ.NIC temporarily blocked the sites. The court noted that the letter was a recommendation by the public authority and the website administrators or mobile operators did not have to respect it in any way. The decision is final, but the plaintiffs intend to file a cassation complaint. They believe that the intervention violated the principles of the rule of law, freedom of expression, the right to receive information, freedom of thought, and scientific research. They emphasised the need for clear rules for blocking disinformation websites.
Attack on journalists
Earlier in November 2022, several journalists were attacked while covering a protest against the Czech government and Czech Television (see previous update). Czech Television editor Richard Samko was subjected to verbal abuse and racist insults, while journalist Radek Bartoníček, from Aktuálně.cz, was harassed by demonstrators, who knocked his phone while he was filming the protest.