On 28 February, as part of a Europe-wide collection of data on the citizens of the European continent, an extraordinarily detailed census of individual citizens, their accommodation, their education, their background and their habits is to take place in the Czech Republic.
There are two things which are controversial about this: the census is not going to be anonymous: the Czech Statistical Office demands that all census forms, whose completion will be compulsory, must be identified by individual citizens' rodné číslo (an equivalent of the British National Insurance Number of the US "Social Security Number"). Rodné číslo will link all the information, given on the census forms, directly to individual citizens within the Czech Republic.
The database of information which will originate as a result of the census will be extremely valuable, especially since the information will be traceable to individual citizens. Problem number two is that by all accounts and purposes, the Czech Republic cannot ensure that the aggregate data will not fall into the wrong hands.
The civil service in the Czech Republic is bureaucratic, incompetent, often corrupt and unreliable. It cannot be relied upon to preserve the confidentiality of the collected data. Misuse of the data is punishable by law, but as Britské listy has found out, the law is probably unenforceable in the Czech Republic. The judicial system is not impartial: it succumbs to party political pressure. Thus many people are worried and do not want to take part in the census.
Impartiality at risk
Britské listy has recorded a number of instances where the Czech legal system and the Czech civil service has failed to be impartial. In the case of Vladimír Železný, who took the commercial television station TV Nova away from its original American investors, Central European Media Enterprises in August 1999, the Czech courts have decided that he was perfectly entitled to do so. The case is complex and the results of international arbitration have not been announced yet. An international lawsuit in this matter is just starting in London.
In September 2000, on the occasion of the IMF/World Bank meeting in Prague, the Czech police committed acts of brutality against a number of detained demonstrators and even quite accidental passers-by in the streets of Prague. As a result, some 350 complaints in this matter have been received by the Czech police authorities. The Czech Interior Ministry has been investigating these complaints rather sluggishly. To date, the testimony of just two foreign nationals has been heard by the Czech Interior Minister´s Inspection Department—the Inspection Department might call two more foreigners to testify, as Britské listy learned when it enquired about the state of the investigation last week.
On the whole, the behaviour of the Czech police is deemed to have been correct by the Czech authorities. No policeman has been reprimanded or punished for perpetrating acts of brutality on members of the public last September. One reluctantly concludes that the Czech police is above the law.
When about two weeks ago, Danish student Mads Traerup was found innocent by a Prague court of attacking members of the police during the IMF/World Bank, demonstrations, another disturbing matter emerged: Traerup had been held in custody in the Czech Republic under rather primitive conditions for more than a month, and was only released on bail before the trial—although any reasonably impartial observer would have seen from the very beginning that the charges, levelled against him do not stick.
One reluctantly concludes that the case of Mads Trarerup was politically motivated: the Czech police needed to have a case of a foreign marauder, a culprit who could be brought to trial. It was only due to the incompetence of the police witnesses who testified at the court under the glare of international publicity that the case against Traerup collapsed.
Charges against other allegedly "violent" demonstrators, for instance a group of Hungarian youths, have however not been dropped, although Britské listy has been able to ascertain that the evidence, gathered against them, is also dubious.
Breaking the law unpunished
As we reported at the time, in November 2000, on the instigation of two members of the Prague Municipal Council, the Prague Municipal Police (basically, a force of traffic wardens) grossly overstepped their authority, as defined by law, and imitating riot police action from September 2000 directed against the anti-globalisation demonstrators, forcibly cleared a squat in the Prague Ladronka Estate. The squat was a centre of alternative cultural activity and the case of whether or not it should be allowed to go on functioning was to have been dealt with by the courts.
The Prague Municipal Council and the Prague Municipal Police pre-emptied the decision of the courts, and by forcibly clearing the squat, infringed upon the law in several instances.
The Municipal Council action became the subject of a criminal investigation by the police, but Britské listy found out that enormous party political pressure was applied to the police investigator of this affair in order to make him drop the matter. And indeed, at the end of last week it was announced that the Head of the Criminal Investigations Office for Prague 6, Jaroslav Novák, had decided to terminate all investigations into these criminal infringements of the law by the Prague Municipal Office. Justice has again been subordinated to political pressure.
As we have also reported before, in December 2000, the News and Current Affairs Department at Czech public service television rebelled against newly appointed management, hijacked Czech TV's news and current affairs programmes, turning them into propaganda for their cause and, with the support of a small opposition political party, turned an internal labour dispute into a nation-wide political crisis, a "struggle for freedom of speech."
In doing so, the rebels appropriated the broadcasting equipment and the news and current affairs programming of Czech TV for their own personal purposes, abandoning impartiality and critical detachment, expected of a public service TV station, thus undoubtedly committing the criminal offence of "appropriating and misusing someone else's property."
In January 2001, in their propaganda campaign against the parliament-appointed Council for Czech Television, they broadcast selected highlights of mobile telephone printouts, disseminating the details of private telephone contacts of some members of the Council, those who the rebels regarded as their adversaries. By publishing these mobile telephone printouts, the TV rebels have undoubtedly infringed Czech telecommunications law, which guarantees the privacy of such information and punishes its publication by a fine of up to CSK five million, or several years imprisonment.
But there is no political will to pursue these charges. These other instances show clearly that the Czech judiciary is not independent and can be expected to yield to party political pressure, as is expedient.
Thus it cannot be guaranteed that any data, collected within the framework of the forthcoming census, will be given due confidentiality. There is a long history of spectacular leaks of information in the post-Communist Czech Republic. It can be expected that if a right sum of money is found, the individualised data, obtained by the nation-wide census, will end up in private hands. And if someone steals the data, it cannot be guaranteed that he or she will be punished according to the law.
As Britské listy has commented, as long as the Czech TV journalists are not punished for publishing confidential mobile telephone printouts, there can be no guarantee that confidential information, entered onto the census forms by members of unsuspecting public, will not suddenly appear in some "investigative" programme on Czech Television, which might suit the private purposes of the journalists who make these programmes.
Concern about scanning
Britské listy has discovered that all the forms containing the census information will be handed
Deltax refused to tell Britské listy how the security of the processed information will be guaranteed. The work on the census data at Deltax will be dealt with by Leona Grée, a lady who under communism used to work for the state import-export company Polytechna (and was registered at the time as a collaborator of the Communist secret police Stb). Later she was active in two firms, Alfa Invest, and Balnea, which participated in the asset-stripping of the company Jihočeské lesy (South-Bohemian Forests).
All this information has caused concern in the Czech government Office for the Protection of Personal Information (Úřad pro ochranu osobních údajů). Its chairperson Karel Neuwirth said that his office had not been informed of the fact that all the scanning work is to be "outsourced" to Deltax. It is possible that the way the Czech Statistical Office has prepared the census is an infringement of the Czech Constitution, in particular the citizen's right to privacy. However, it would appear that the concern, expressed by this office, is being ignored by the government.
Last week, the Czech government went on the offensive in this matter. It reprimanded the media for raising doubts about the forthcoming census and the security of the obtained data. The only guarantee that the government has given the public, however, is a statement according to which, the data will be absolutely secure: a copy of a CD-ROM containing the data will be kept under lock and key in a safe.
Jan Čulík, 12 February 2001
- Archive of Jan Čulík's articles in CER
- Read CER's new ebook on the Czech Social Democrats
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on the Czech Republic through CER
- Return to CER front page