Czech authorities alarmingly unwilling to prosecute online hate crimes
Ill-will, incompetence or indifference. In which category does the inactivity of the Czech Police with respect to racist threats and verbal attacks belong?
The failures of the criminal justice authorities result in making it possible for incitement to racism and threats to be made with impunity in the virtual realm, especially on social networking sites. Zdeněk Ryšavý, director of the ROMEA organization, recently became the target of such threats.
More and more Czech citizens are personally experiencing this every day. People are becoming the victims of online threats because of their alternative opinions, religion, skin color, or - in the case of the director of ROMEA - because they refuse to agree with incitements to racism or to participate in disseminating xenophobic opinions.
When people fear for their lives, it is natural for them to turn to the police for help and protection, as the police motto goes. However, after experiencing bureaucratic obstacles and the time it takes to write up various documents and requests or make official statements, many realize the futility of seeking such police assistance; while rank and file detectives in the police departments do their best to help, their dependency on the often absurd instructions given them by police command ties their hands.
Incitement to murder
On 17 February a Czech-language Facebook page was launched with hateful content and an unambiguous name: "We Demand the Public Execution of the Executive Director of Romea, o.s., Zdeněk Ryšavý" ("Požadujeme veřejnou popravu výkonného ředitele Romea o.s. Zdeňka Ryšavého"). In addition to other texts inciting violence against a particular group, on 28 February the following discussion post also turned up there: "Not only will Zdeněk Ryšavý and his daughter have to pay with their blood, but so will Tomáš Bystrý, Jarmila Balážová and the dubious artist and perverted homosexual David Tišet" [sic, the correct spelling is Tišer - editors].
A Facebook user appearing under the name Gabriel Zamrazil then posted: "I totally agree. He deserves death.... Let me do it."
This commentary indicated a readiness to personally commit a crime or to otherwise ensure its realization. Ryšavý reported the page to Facebook as hateful and demanded that it be removed.
"We immediately reported the page and called on our fans to do the same," Ryšavý told news server Romea.cz. Facebook sent a response within moments.
"We have checked the page you reported as containing hateful language or symbols and found it does not violate our Community Principles," read the answer. This is the automatic reply that Facebook sends out within just a few minutes in such cases.
Ryšavý, afraid for his own life and for the security of his family, filed a criminal report on 5 March about the facts indicating that the making of criminal threats (Section 353 Act No. 40/2009, Coll.), incitement to commit a crime (Section 364) and approval of a crime (Section 365) had all been perpetrated. The presumption also exists that the people who supported these Facebook threats by clicking the "like" button (another 27 people) have committed the felony of approving of a crime.
The police response that followed could have been a model for an absurd tragicomedy about how the rule of law works, one that should be screened in police academies as an example of how police officers and the state prosecutor are definitely not supposed to proceed when fulfilling their obligations. Ultimately, what helped the case was publicizing it; most probably, when the perpetrator learned from the media that a criminal investigation was underway, he got scared and erased the Facebook page himself.
Lost in translation
"The unwillingness of the Police of the Czech Republic to pursue serious verbal crimes like this is alarming," said Klára Kalibová, a lawyer who directs the In IUSTITIA organization, which participated in writing up the criminal report. The correct URL address of the Facebook page was included in that communication.
Police had to first have the text of the report translated into English, and it then underwent approval according to a so-called Telecommunications Service Monitoring protocol, in accordance with the Czech Criminal Code, after which it was sent by the Police Presidium to the country at issue. In the first phase, that was Ireland, which is where Facebook has its European branch.
Not only did that entire procedure take several months, but the Czech Police sent the wrong URL address to Ireland. "Understandably, they wrote back from Ireland that the URL address was wrong and needed correction," Kalibová comments, adding, "but [the Czech Police] didn't correct it - instead they issued an absurd decision that was not based on the truth, claiming that they had not managed to find the perpetrator and that the case was being postponed."
After some time, there was nothing left to do but to resubmit the motion to the police, again with the correct URL address. The police were repeatedly called upon to communicate with Facebook.
In the interim, however, an internal methodological instruction for the Police of the Czech Republic took effect according to which officers must first consult everything with the state prosecutor, who will decide on how to proceed. This, of course, meant that the excruciating process of the criminal investigation was far from over.
"One state prosecutor, whom I will not name, but who is presented as a leading specialist in extremism, by the way, has already shelved several cases of verbal crimes, saying they are allegedly not serious and are covered by freedom of speech protections," Kalibová said. Those cases have involved, for example, right-wing extremists from the National Resistance, or Patrik Banga's criminal report filed against a journalist who invented and published a "news" story about Romani people allegedly robbing a collection that had been taken up for flood victims.
"In Zdeněk Ryšavý's case, a police officer consulted it with [the state prosecutor] and she decided not to file charges. She allegedly insisted in her decision that in her experience, the Americans would not pursue this," Kalibová said.
The excuse of freedom of speech in the USA
What is absurd about the state prosecutor's approach in this context is the fact that she has argued in her decision that freedom of speech is extensive in American legislative practice. The state prosecutor's interpretation of that information is that US law tolerates these kinds of threats.
That claim is dubious to say the least, because death threats against a specific individual are prosecutable in the USA, just as they are in the Czech Republic. It is mainly dubious in another sense: The state prosecutor either does not know or does not want to know that she was supposed to have been turning in this case not to the USA, but to Ireland, where EU legislation applies.
She is, therefore, involuntarily participating in creating de facto impunity for verbal crimes committed in a racist context in the Czech Republic. What is paradoxical is that according to our information, the Irish branch of Facebook responsible for Central Europe is friendly and helpful when it comes to intervening against such excesses, but of course they need the correct information to do so, and the Police of the Czech Republic, and indirectly the state prosecutor, basically were incapable of supplying it.
"I was in contact with Irish Facebook's head of public relations for Central Europe, who said that if the police can prove this to her, she would cooperate with them. She told me: Have them write it up properly and we will be happy to oblige," said Kalibová, "but the Czech police officers, of course, did not respond to that."
Calls for murder illegal in US too
Kalibová believes this points to a serious systemic problem in addressing hate crime in a cybercrime context, because Europe cannot be toothless in its cooperation with the United States, and the clarification of specific crimes should not have to depend upon whether Czech police officers speak English or not. The state prosecutor's key argument, that the case of Zdeněk Ryšavý falls under the protection of freedom of speech as it is interpreted in the United States, is doubly moot.
Even if the case were to fall under American legislation (and not Irish law, as it actually does), any call for the specific murder of a specific person is clearly illegal in all of these systems. "This is extremely serious misconduct by the criminal justice authorities and it is endangering the security of a specific person and his family," Kalibová stresses; she is considering using her final enforceable procedural tool, that of a complaint to the supervising Prosecutor's Office, which could order the state attorney to proceed in accordance with the Criminal Code.
Grist to the mill of the xenophobes
Giving the excuse that threats to publicly execute a Czech citizen and his family cannot be prosecuted by referring to the practically unlimited freedom of speech in the United States of America is unacceptable for two reasons: Such an excuse not only contravenes the facts, it mainly contributes to a false legal analysis and reinforces Czech racists and other extremists in the illusion that their behavior is tolerated by society and the state. This is particularly dangerous in a situation where blogs, the media, and social networks are abuzz with incitements to hatred.
Such lack of action further disseminates the feeling that calls for violence against ethnic minorities, or against those whose opinions differ from ours, are generally tolerated. In this context, the futile, long-term, strenuous efforts of this author to contact those responsible at the Police of the Czech Republic for a statement on this issue is symptomatic of a bigger problem; if the Czech Police provide us a statement after this piece is published, we will be glad to publish it.
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