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Legally sanctioned lying: A moment of truth for the Czech Republic?

A court in Prague struck a blow to civil society in the Czech Republic on Friday, when it bizarrely ruled that Prime Minister Andrej Babiš can continue to lie about Transparency International and does not need to apologize for false statements made about our national chapter in the Czech Republic.

The first instance court decision came in a libel case that TI CZ brought against PM Babiš after he repeatedly called our anti-corruption organisation “corrupt”. The court did not examine whether there was any truth to his statements; it only considered whether he should be able to make them. TI CZ will appeal.

TI CZ has been campaigning for Prime Ministrer Babiš to be held accountable for his conflicts of interests involving EU and Czech government subsidies to the company he founded, and of which he remains the ultimate beneficiary.

“Mr. Babiš´s goal is to constantly damage our credibility in the public discourse and in the eyes of broader public. These false accusations are an attempt to discredit those who are holding the Prime Minister accountable and to deflect from his documented conflicts of interest,” said David Kotora, TI CZ Communications Manager.

The court’s logic seems to be that since both Transparency International and the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic have access to the media, we can simply refute his claims in the court of public opinion.

It’s worth noting that Mr Babiš owns a media group, whose titles include one of the most popular newspapers in the country.

The judge in the libel case said that Babiš’s statements should be tolerated in the name of free speech, while TI CZ should show more self-reflection and be prepared to tolerate public criticism.

The ruling sets an incredibly dangerous precedent.

Examples from around the world show that when politicians can level false accusations against civil society with impunity, the consequences for democracy, human rights and the rule of law can be dire.

Political leaders in the Philippines and Brazil have repeatedly attacked civil society, including with ludicrous claims that they have become agents of criminal gangs, or are destroying forests. Attacks such as these seek to discredit all independent civil society and to discredit critical voices pointing at their own wrongdoings.

They also signal that further attacks, such as physical violence, police harassment and frivolous lawsuits, have the approval of those in power. Not coincidentally, Brazil and the Philippines are the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders.

In Georgia, Transparency International is fighting a legal battle over false allegations about the head of our national chapter. The country’s former prime minister and chair of the ruling party Bidzina Ivanishvili, his associates and even the justice minister have been repeating and amplifying the false claims.

At the same time, state capture is on the rise, eroding democracy and the rule of law, in a country once held up as an anti-corruption champion. TI Georgia is taking the defamation case to the Supreme Court and intends to take it to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

Elsewhere, attacks on civil society have gone hand in hand with attempts to weaken anti-corruption forces in the judiciary and bring them under political control. Last year in Mongolia, judges and the heads of the country’s anti-corruption agency were removed from their posts. Now, under new draft laws, civil society organizations will be deprived of their funding or even dissolved.

In Guatemala, not long after the UN-backed anti-corruption agency CICIG was kicked out of the country, Congress has passed a series of amendments to laws governing non-profits. These would grant authorities broad powers to suspend civil society organisations for spurious and poorly defined reasons. Together with allies around the world, we are asking the President to veto these amendments.

Corruption thrives when citizens are unable to speak truth to power. Attacks on civil society by political leaders indicate a disregard for the democratic freedoms and institutions that are essential for curbing corruption.

When political leaders attack us with lies and slander, it is essential that we keep fighting to hold them to account for their words, as well as for their actions.

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