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Czech court levies record damages against online publisher for racist discussion posts

Prague, 29.1.2015 0:38, (ROMEA)
The Czech tabloid Parlamentní listy (PHOTO:  Romea.cz)
The Czech tabloid Parlamentní listy (PHOTO: Romea.cz)

A Czech court has, for the first time, handed down a punishment for the racism that occurs in online discussions beneath articles posted to news servers and social networking sites, a phenomenon that has yet to be sufficiently prosecuted here. Plaintiff Jaroslav Suchý has succeeded with a lawsuit against OUR MEDIA, the publisher of the online tabloid Parlamentní listy, and the Municipal Court has awarded him damages of CZK 150 000 for insults targeting him in anonymous online discussions.

The judgment has yet to take effect. Does it mark a breakthrough in the Czech courts' approach toward this kind of dissemination of racism and xenophobia?

A revolutionary decision

What was the subject of the lawsuit? Discussions that took place online among the readers of two different articles, one of which was about the plaintiff, Jaroslav Suchý, and his encounter with US President Barack Obama in Prague, during which he stroked the President's head; and another about the general conflict between the chair of the ultra-right DSSS, Mr Vandas, and Romani people.

The discussion posts included both personal insults against Suchý, racist posts, and a combination of both kinds of comments, such as:  "How to make easy money, how to rob people, gypsies know that stuff, but when they hear the word 'work', they pretend they don't know what it is! The snipers guarding Obama should have popped that piece of trash!"; "That gyppo needs a good slap across the mouth, mainly he needs to go work - take a pickaxe to him until he's knocked out"; "I'd really like to stroke him too - with a metal boot up his ass, the creep"'; "That nut will keep bugging people until someone takes him out"; or "I'd throw Suchý into the Vltava so he stops being such a killjoy".

There is no question that some of these are racist, xenophobic insults, and the judge's decision found that they met the definition of incitement to defamation and racial hatred. The online media outlet, moreover, did not respond to repeated calls from the plaintiff for the posts to be erased, and they have been up online since 2011, even though the plaintiff began to call for them to be erased immediately after the articles were published.

The court, therefore, decided that the publisher of the tabloid is obliged to pay the plaintiff CZK 150 000. The judgment has not yet taken effect and by all indications it seems OUR MEDIA will appeal.

"For the time being we can only confirm that Mr Jaroslav Suchý actually did sue the OUR MEDIA company over the content of those discussions, which he felt violated his personality rights. We are appealing this judgment and only after it is ruled on by the appeals court will it be possible to consider the decision binding and final," writes Simona Pastrnková, the legal representative of OUR MEDIA, a.s., in the company's official statement.  

"We cannot, however, conclude that the overtones at issue here are primarily racist. In our opinion, the primary subject matter here is not about racist insults," the statement reads.

This is, nevertheless, a significant precedent, because racist insults and remarks of a similar caliber are commonly posted online beneath articles about Romani people by readers who are never prosecuted for them. The strictest punishment that online commentators ever receive for disseminating racism and xenophobia is, at the most, that their posts are erased.  

The law exists but is not enforced

"Generally I can say that I do not recall a similar verdict ever being handed down in the Czech Republic," David Slížek, the Editor-in-Chief of Lupa.cz, which covers the Internet, told Romea.cz. "There does exist, for example, the famous Prolux case, in which our publishing house, Internet Info, was involved, but that was about firms that sued us over critical posts to an online discussion. That case made it all the way to the Czech Supreme Court and ended with our having to erase two offensive words from the post ("jak svině" - "like a pig"), otherwise the critical posts were allowed to remain online."  

Slížek also pointed out that, according to the law  (Section 5 paragraph 1 of Act No. 480/2004, Coll.), a publisher is responsible for the content posted by online users in two cases:  If the publisher knows the content is illegal, or if it can be proven that the publisher has learned of the illegal nature of the content posted by the user and not taken any steps to remove it. "Most online publishers, therefore, do their best to at least moderate the discussions posted beneath their articles somehow and to erase obnoxious content. If they do not do so, they are actually exposing themselves to risk," he says.  

In the case of racist insults during an online discussion, a law does cover their successful elimination, but it just is not being made use of. This may be because intentional confusion and provocation can also occur in anonymous online discussions.

Paradoxically, it could theoretically happen that someone might anonymously join a disucssion, use racist insults, and then sue the publisher for failing to thoroughly remove the obnoxious content in a timely way. The legal representative of OUR MEDIA did her best to argue in that spirit, claiming that there is a need to distinguish between anonymous posts and ones where the users identify themselves, but the court did not identify with her argument.  

Suchý has filed other lawsuits

"The police are inactive, they are not capable of combating racism on the Internet," Suchý has written in a statement for Romea.cz in which he expresses the concern that unless similar crimes are prosecuted, "the Internet will be overwhelmed by racism." He also points out that he was outraged by the fact that the legal representative of OUR MEDIA, Mgr. Simona Pastrňková, laughed inappropriately during the hearing of the case when presenting the evidence and reading the racist discussion posts aloud, for which she was reportedly reprimanded by the judge.

Suchý is a publicly known figure in the context of the battle he has been waging against racial discrimination and his efforts to get media attention. In addition to having "stroked Obama", he has earned his reputation by filing lawsuits and writing other complaints.  

He has filed, for example, a lawsuit for protection of personality rights against TV NOVA over a reportage on its "Na vlastní oči" program from April 2009; against Czech Television over a program about him in the Czech Television Reporters series; against the MAFRA publishing house (also for racist expressions used in online discussion posts beneath articles); and against Czech Senator Eybert over an alleged lie he told about Suchý and falsified documents on both Czech Television and TV NOVA. He is also suing at least three other businesses for alleged discrimination, charging that they refused to employ him because of his ethnic origin, and he has appealed to the Czech Supreme Court in the matter of a similar anti-discrimination lawsuit against the Billa company.

In the context of the above, Mr Suchý declares that he plans to emigrate because he feels discriminated against in the Czech Republic because of his origin. In the past he has attempted to receive political asylum abroad, but did not succeed.   


Ondřej Mrázek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Tags:  

Média, Racism, Xenophobia, Antidiskriminace



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