Czech president's joke about journalists no laughing matter
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The president of a small Central American country recently met with the leader of a notorious drug gang considered responsible for the deaths of dozens of journalists. News media carried the following report. “As the two walked together, followed by an incessant click of cameras from the media throng that followed, [the president] said loud enough for the microphones to catch, ‘there are too many journalists, we should liquidate them.' "

The headlines reported the comment as a joke, but the journalists didn’t think it was funny. And the president wasn’t from Central America, he was from Central Europe. It was Czech President Milos Zeman. And he wasn’t with the leader of a drug gang, but with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two presidents were meeting with Chinese Premier Xi Li Peng this week in Beijing, discussing the new Chinese initiative to increase Eastern influence over the world economy.

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The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has tracked the violent deaths of journalists worldwide since 1992. They cover three categories: death during dangerous assignments, by crossfire in combat, and from murder. Murder accounts for the overwhelming majority. Those that were murdered covered corruption, politics, crime and human rights. Since Russia is among the countries with the highest rate of murdered journalists, joking about liquidating them in a conversation with Vladimir Putin is not funny.

 

Responding to my inquiry about Zeman’s “joke,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said, "Threatening journalists is no laughing matter in any context, but it is particularly concerning when it comes from the highest of offices in a country in the heart of Europe. At the Committee to Protect Journalists, we have documented dozens of cases where threats to the press, voiced by authoritarian leaders, have translated into tangible attacks on the journalists singled out."

China, where this conversation took place, is not known for murdering journalists, but it is known for heavily censoring them, and has jailed hundreds for daring to conduct investigations. In all the countries where journalists are at risk, the corruption surrounding the people in power paralyzes the structures of the state, and empowers criminal elements and the intelligence networks that support them. Although American political figures and media pundits complain about biased reporting and fake news, on both sides of the political aisle, we forget that in many parts of the world, journalists are giving their lives to expose this rot.

So why would the Czech president make such a joke, in the hearing of the journalists covering his trip to China? Because it wasn’t a joke at all, but a thinly veiled threat. President Zeman has just faced the worst two or three months of his long political career, a career capped by his slavish devotion to Putin’s expansionist plans for Russia and the Near Abroad.

Zeman has been hounded by the media in the Czech Republic, Europe, and even in Washington, facing increasingly pointed and uncomfortable questions about his campaign funding, his connections to Russian emissaries such as Martin Nejedly (“Putin’s paymaster in Europe”) and Vladimir Yakunin. His “joke” was an equally pointed response to the investigations; the fact that it was reported prominently by Russia’s state-owned RT news service was meant to drive home the threat that was uttered in the presence of a man who knows how to silence journalists who investigate government corruption. (See Anna Politkovskaya, Mikhail Beketov, and Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev, for example.)

This was a boorish, heavy-handed attempt by Zeman to gag and intimidate Czech journalists, to try to save himself and his allies from the web of investigations that are encircling them. As they close in on the financial ties between him, his political and financial backers, and the Kremlin, he has become increasingly desperate. His solution was to take advantage of his meeting with Putin, to try to use him to frighten the journalists who are investigating him. It was a tacit acknowledgment of his weakness in the face of the media.

But in a democratic system, the media aren’t supposed to lick the ruler’s boots. Democracy has flourished only when free media can investigate, write, and publish information that exposes corruption and limits tyranny. It is incumbent on democratic governments to stand up for the liberty of the Czech media; they should call on Zeman to repudiate his comments and apologize. Many Czech cabinet ministers and political leaders already have condemned the statement, and they should be joined by leaders of the United States and the European Union. Zeman’s attempt to drag the Czech Republic back to the bad old days of Soviet dominance must be resisted by the combined weight of the Western world.

Meanwhile, journalists and governments should continue the investigations. They must be getting close to the truth, or he would not have lashed out in this way. The best response to intimidation is to expose the secrets he is trying to cover. And President Zeman and his cronies should know that if anything happens to any journalists investigating him, they will be held accountable.

 

Bart Marcois (@BMarcois) was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration and was previously a career foreign service officer.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.