Czech Republic

Czech flag

Flag of the Czech Republic

By Delaney Testerman

The Czech Republic was ranked 13th out of 180 countries on the 2015 World Press Freedom Index completed by Reporters Without Borders. To put this in perspective, the United States, a nation very proud of its freedom, ranked 49th. Freedom House has consistently classified the Czech Republic as “Free” based on their political, economic, and legal environments.  The fact that the Czech Republic was ranked so highly is astounding when you consider the facts that it has only been a sovereign nation since Jan 1, 1993, and until 1989, was under the control of the Soviet Union.  In 2013, they were ranked 16th on the World Press Freedom Index. They have been ranked “Free” consistently by Freedom House since 1993. This little country, with a population of only around 10.5 million, is big on freedom of expression and civil rights because they have seen the worst under the era of communist oppression.

Historical Background

The Czech Republic has a long and colorful history. It has only been an independent nation for about two decades, but the Czech lands lay in the middle of Europe on top of some of the oldest trade routes on the continent. Prior to World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the region was comprised of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia, and these three regions, “coexisted, with a constantly changing degree of political interdependence, for more than a millennium before combining to form the modern state of Czechoslovakia in 1918 (Encyclopedia Britanica).” Bohemia and Moravia, which now make up the Czech Republic, remained closely tied throughout the years leading up to the Great War and were ruled jointly during much of that time. Slovakia, however, is sometimes called “Little Hungary” and its cultural and historical differences made the division of Czechoslovakia foreseeable. Before the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, “The press was heavily censored, public meetings were forbidden, and those suspected of disloyalty were imprisoned (Encyclopedia Britanica).” The Czech and Slovak people began dealing more closely with the Allies and started demanding independence and a state that was sovereign, “within the historic frontiers of the Bohemian lands and of Slovakia (the Epiphany Declaration; January 1918).” The Prague National Committee, a domestic political organization, declared Czechoslovakia a republic on October 28th, 1918. In March of 1939, Bohemia and Moravia were proclaimed as part of the German Third Reich. This takeover of the Czech lands is known as “The Rape of Prague.” Soviet troops entered the Czech lands in 1945 and overthrew the German army, liberating Czechoslovakia from German control. After World War II, Czechoslovakia, “enjoyed a brief period of democratic freedom, then found itself once more under totalitarianism (Blunden, 123).” In 1946, elections were held in Czechoslovakia once again, and the communist party won by a landslide. With the communists in power, Czechoslovakia fell at the hands of Joseph Stalin. It took several decades for the Czech and Slovak people to be able to free themselves from the grasp of communist control. It was not until 1989, when the Velvet Revolution occurred, that the transition from Communism to Democracy finally took place. The so-called “Velvet Divorce” occurred on Dec 31, 1992, separating the Czech Republic and Slovakia into two independent nations. Each nation adopted a new constitution on Jan 1, 1993, and the Czech Republic was established as a parliamentary democracy. Article 17 of the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Basic Freedoms (which is given the same level of respect as their constitution) allows that,

“(1) The freedom of expression and the right to information are guaranteed.

(2) Everyone has the right to express their opinion in speech, in writing, in the press, in pictures, or in any other form, as well as freely to seek, receive, and disseminate ideas and information irrespective of the frontiers of the State.

(3) Censorship is not permitted.

(4) The freedom of expression and the right to seek and disseminate information may be limited by law in the case of measures necessary in a democratic society for protecting the rights and freedoms of others, the security of the State, public security, public health, and morals.

(5) State bodies and territorial self-governing bodies are obliged, in an appropriate manner, to provide information on their activities. Conditions therefore and the implementation thereof shall be provided for by law (Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms).”

Free Speech

From 1945 to 1989, Czechoslovakia was under communist control. In communist countries, the government controls land, jobs, media, and almost everything else. Heavy government suppression of speech is imposed, and huge consequences are enforced on anyone who speaks his or her mind or says anything negative about the government or its officials. This strategy of media control uses propaganda and repression of ideas to, in turn, control its citizens. With the government in charge of the media outlets and having the power to punish anyone who speaks out against them, there also tends to be little, if any, sense of privacy. When people are afraid to speak their minds even in the privacy of their own homes, the fear of punishment, imprisonment, and even death, work to suppress speech. In 1965, Jan Prochzka, a leading Czech dissident, was secretly recorded by the police in his home having a private conversation with a friend. Shortly after making these recordings, the police started airing the taped conversation on the state run radio. After the tapes were broadcast, Prochazka lost his job and was shunned from many social events. The repression of his freedom of thought only strengthened the reform movement, though. The prominent Czech writer, Milan Kundera, said that this tactic almost succeeded in destroying Prochazka. Initially people were shocked at what Prochazka was saying, but after a while, Kundera wrote, people began to realize, “that the real scandal was not Prochazka’s daring talk but the rape of his life; they realized, as if by electric shock, that private and public are two essentially different worlds and that respect for the difference is the indispensable condition…for a man to live free (Lewis, 79).” Without privacy, there can be no free speech. Czechoslovakia’s commitment to free speech only grew after this event, and others like it, took place in the early 1960’s.

The 1960’s were a decade of growing reform in Czechoslovakia. For a period of four months in 1968, Czechoslovakia broke free from communist oppression during what is known as the Prague Spring. A series of protests were held by journalists and students in opposition of Antonin Novotny, the Stalinist ruler of Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubcek, a liberal reformer took control after Novotny resigned, and Dubcek, “introduced a series of far reaching political and economic reforms, including increased freedom of speech and the rehabilitation of political dissidents (history.com).” Dubcek’s efforts to give communism a human face were squelched however, and even tighter restrictions were placed on speech when Stalin got wind of the reforms and sent 600,000 Warsaw Pact troops to invade Czechoslovakia. Dubcek attempted, “to revive political pluralism, [and] the Soviet Union made clear it would and could intervene (Swain, 5).” The Czech and Slovak peoples were resistant to the invasion, but they were no match for the Soviet invasion, and eventually Dubcek was replaced by another pro-Soviet leader and all of his reforms were repealed. Even though the Prague Spring was unsuccessful, it stirred up a sense of rebellion in the citizens that simmered until the Velvet Revolution in 1989 when it all came to a boil.

On Nov 16, 1989, a group of students gathered for a peaceful protest in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. The next day, they planned to march in Prague. The march was organized, “to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the suppression of a student demonstration in German-occupied Prague, but students soon began criticizing the regime (Encyclopedia Britannica).” While they were marching to the center of the city, their numbers grew, and when they finally made it to the middle of Prague, “riot police met them with brutal force (Nedelsky, 162).” This incidence of police brutality and the suppression of the students’ speech during this peaceful protest set fire to the nation and initialized a protest across the county. This is now known as the Velvet Revolution. The people of Czechoslovakia started to demand things like a multiparty parliamentary, free elections, and the right to protest against the government. In December 1989, the communist appointed president was forced to resign. Alexander Dubcek returned to the Czech political scene and became the new speaker of the federal assembly and appointed playwright Vaclav Havel as the first noncommunist president in more than 40 years. Six months later, the first free election was held and Havel was reelected president. This revolution obviously had a huge impact on the country’s commitment to free speech. Havel was a prominent Czech writer and dissident and brought about massive reforms in Czechoslovakia. When Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Czech Republic adopted a constitution that solidified the nation’s commitment to the freedom of expression.

Since the Velvet Revolution and the subsequent Velvet divorce, the separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Czech people have been highly committed to the freedom of speech. They have seen the worst of Soviet repression and never want to repeat their past. The Czech Republic has ranked higher than the United States in terms of speech and press freedom for years. They have risen from the ashes of communist repression and created one of the freest countries in the world. One case that exemplifies how far the country has come in a little over twenty years took place in November of 2014 when Czech citizens protested in the streets, openly disapproving of the president, and faced no legal repercussions. The protests started on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and were based on, “dissatisfaction with corruption, and a desire for a foreign policy more oriented toward the West (economist.com).” The protesters were focused on dissenting against the president, Milos Zeman, who recently released statements supporting the Chinese and Russian governments. The protestors pelted, “him with eggs and [held] up red cards in a metaphorical demand that he be ejected, as in a football match (economist.com).” The fact that the protestors were not punished for expressing their ideas shows how far the nation has come in recent years, however it also reminds us that the Czech people are not fully committed to the change. In fact, Prague was the only one of the thirteen regions that did not vote for Zeman in the 2013 presidential election.

Another problem that is currently being protested against in the Czech Republic involves the United States military. The Czech government recently decided to allow a United States military convoy to travel though the Czech Republic on what they are calling a “Dragoon Ride” that will last from April 19, 2015, to May 1, 2015. In an interview with Sputnik News, Eva Novotna, a press secretary for an anti-military organization in the Czech Republic, “denounced the decision of the Czech government to allow the US convoy to travel across the country as a ‘naivety bordering on stupidity (sputniknews.com).’” Seeing a citizen blatantly call a decision made by the government “stupid” and face absolutely no punishment reminds us again how far the Czech people have come. If Novotna had made this statement only 25 years ago, it is not unlikely that she would have been imprisoned. Protests are underway along the course of travel planned out by the “Dragoons,” and the Czech police have yet to retaliate against the protestors with any kind of violence or repression of their rights. Citizens across the country have been posting to their blogs slamming Czech politicians and even the American military for spreading fascism. The Czech people now have the freedom to say whatever they want about their government, and they are taking full advantage of that freedom.

Free Press

Vaclav Havel, the anti-communist dissident who was elected as the first president of Czechoslovakia, started his career as a playwright and essayist. He spent nearly five years in prison for subversion and two decades of his life under close surveillance by the secret police. He is one of the Czech Republic’s most revered figures. In his years as a dissident, Havel helped found, “Charter 77, the longest enduring human rights movement in the former Soviet Bloc, and keenly articulated the lasting humiliations that Communism imposed on the individual (nytimes.com).” Havel also ran the Civic Forum which was the central body of dissident groups in the Czech Republic and, “called for an enquiry into the anti-student violence, the end of censorship and dialogue of rulers and ruled (Okey, 91).” When Alexander Dubcek was working to reform Communism during the Prague Spring, Havel was working to abolish it completely. He believed that Communism could never be reformed. After the Soviets sent tanks in to suppress the reform movement in Prague, Havel continued to fight against Communism. In 1969, he authored an article entitled “On the Theme of an Opposition” which was circulated through Czechoslovakia and other Soviet Bloc countries. He was accused and convicted of the crime of subversion, “vilified on state television, and banned as a writer (nytimes.com).” Ten years later, after continued work with Charter 77, he was convicted of subversion and served five years in prison. In prison, he was forbidden from writing anything except letters to his wife. However, after his release from prison in 1988, he continued his work as a dissident and when Communism fell in 1989, Havel was elected as the first president of Czechoslovakia. His heroic work to overthrow Communism in his country, and his subsequent arrest for subversion, are shining examples of the restrictions placed on the press in Communist countries. His election to the presidency after the fall of Communism shows how committed the Czech people are to the freedom of expression. Vaclav Havel died in December of 2011, but he will be revered for generations to come for the work he did to make the Czech Republic the free country it is today.

George Theiner was born in Prague in 1928, but moved to England with his parents in 1939 after the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. He moved back to Prague after World War II, but when he refused to join the Communist Party in 1948, he was arrested and sent to a labor camp in a coal field. He was released and later became the editor of The Index on Censorship. He worked as the editor of The Index until he died in 1988. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the fall of Communism, but his work with The Index and his refusal to join the Communists and give up his freedoms inspired many Czechs and Slovaks to fight for their right to free speech and press.

Communism does not only attempt to control politics; it wants control of everything. It tries to dictate how people think by controlling every aspect of life from industry to media to university curriculum. Anyone who questions the state is subject to ridicule, humiliation, and many other forms of punishment. They could lose their jobs, their children might be denied an education, and so on. Jan Urban was a leading dissident and took a main role in the Velvet Revolution. He was also a part of Charter 77, the human rights group run by Vaclav Havel. He was in charge of distributing plays, poetry, and the underground newsletter. When a psychedelic rock group, Plastic People of the Universe, was jailed for performing in 1976, Urban took up their case. Through the dissident newsletter, he shared the story of the Plastic People and encouraged Czechs to listen to music that was banned by the state. In an interview Urban did with Vratislav Brabenec, the Plastic People’s saxophonist, he asked Brabanec why he would not accept government control. Brabenec replied, “That’s freedom, man, I’d die for that (news.bbc.co).” By publishing these interviews in Charter 77 and by circulating poetry, plays, and other pop culture, Urban helped to rally the young people of Czechoslovakia into action, which led to the student protests that started the Velvet Revolution. Urban knew that his free press rights were being restricted by the communists and that he was risking huge consequences, but he fought for his right and the rights of others and helped bring about the revolution.

The Czech public was recently shocked by an anti-Roma (Gypsy) advertisement campaign that was funded by a far-right group and aired on national television. After the public voiced their outrage about the campaign, “The head of Czech Television, Jiri Janecek, said the National Party (NS) video would not be broadcast again (news.bbc.co).” The Prime Minister and the Human Rights Minister of the Czech Republic both released statements saying that they believed the campaign was illegal, but, “a spokesman for Czech Television said that by law, it had no right to alter any party’s election advertisements (news.bbc.co).” There are laws in the Czech Republic that make Holocaust denial illegal and restrict speech that claims a national hatred for any race, gender, etc. However, the advertisement in this case did not deny the Holocaust; it praised it, in fact. Also, it did not claim a national hatred of the Roma people. This is an ongoing issue that will be decided through the elections coming up in Fall 2015. With the current Prime Minister and Human Rights Minister claiming the advertisement’s illegality, though, it seems likely that new legislation will be passed in order to punish the far-right party that funded this campaign.

In March 2011, IPI teamed up with the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) to express their disapproval of a raid on Czech Television offices in Prague by military police. The Czech newspaper, Pravo, reported that, “masked military police carrying automatic weapons entered the station with a court order to secure a recently declassified document, and took away seven bags of documents and three computers (ifex.org).” When police act like this, it discounts the value of the freedoms of speech and press. An investigation was initiated which led to the suspension of the Head of Police. The document that the police were trying to obtain was one of the television networks sources on a controversial story. The head of IPI’s Slovakian committee said, “Such conduct raises concerns about freedom of speech. One of the fundamental rights is the protection of journalists’ sources of information. Only [through such protection] can journalists control public power (ifex.org).” When Hitler took over Germany, and when Lenin took over in the USSR, they both immediately took control of media outlets like newspapers and television and put them under the control of the state. The Czech people know this from first-hand experience, which is why they took no mercy on the head of police. This incidence of suppression of the press and the punishment resulting from it exemplify the Czech Republic’s devotion to the freedom of the press.

Critical Comparison

Since the 1993 split of Czechoslovakia and the dissolution of the USSR, the Czech Republic has made incredible strides in the name of freedom. Article 17 of the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Basic Freedoms grants Czech citizens the rights to free expression, information, speech, writing, and press. It also states that censorship is illegal in the Czech Republic. A few exceptions to this meaning of freedom of speech as defined by Article 17 are defamation, circulation of child pornography, hate speech, and denial of genocide (Holocaust denial), and fake bomb threats.

The United States and the Czech Republic are similar in their stance on things like child pornography, defamation, and what the Czech Criminal Code calls the “spreading of scaremongering information.” This is comparable to the famous quote from Justice Holmes’s opinion in the 1919 case Schenck v. United States, where he said that, “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater,” is not protected by the Constitution.

Even though the Czech Republic is similar to the United States in some regards, it is not hard to find cases where they differ. One area where you can see differences between the two countries is how they handle censorship. The Czech Republic has a recent history involving both Nazis and the USSR, so they know from first hand experience how terrible censorship can be.  Internet censorship has been a hot button issue lately. Censorship is not permitted in the Czech Republic at all, as stated by the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Basic Freedoms. Czech citizens engage in fully free expression of ideas on the internet, via chat rooms, blogs, e-mail, etc. Several Czech internet providers block content related to child pornography, racism, and animal cruelty if it is specifically requested by their customers, but even that is not required. On the other hand, the United States was listed by Reporters Without Borders along with countries like Saudi Arabia, China, and Iran as an “Enemy of the Internet” just last year. This list is comprised of the countries with the most internet surveillance and censorship in the world. Censoring news and information from the internet represses the public systematically and without their knowing. If we have no access to information we cannot even be sure of how free we are. Most American citizens are probably unaware of how censored we really are. This is one area we Czech citizens enjoy much more freedom of expression than Americans, and one reason the United States is not ranked as highly as one may assume.

During German occupation of the Czech Republic, nearly 78,000 Jews were murdered by Hitler’s army. This has shaped Czech society in many ways. It has influenced them so much in fact, that they are one out of sixteen countries where denying the Holocaust is explicitly illegal. Because of their history and the pain and suffering endured by the Czech people during and after this genocide, they have made its denial a crime. The United States however, is more free and open on this topic. It has been the United States’ stance that the remedy for uninformed (or false) speech, is counter-speech. Bradley Smith, the founder and only member of the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust in the United States, “often tries to present himself as a free speech activist, [but] has functioned as a propagandist for the Holocaust denial movement since 1983 (archive.org).” He made it his mission to spread propaganda denying that the Holocaust ever occurred on college campuses across America in the 1980’s. If Smith had attempted anything like this in the Czech Republic he would have been immediately arrested, fined, and possibly imprisoned. While this seems like the Czech government restricting their citizens’ free speech rights, it is understandable when you take into account their history.

Another thing that is more highly restricted in the Czech Republic than in the United States is hate speech. Again, because of their history with the Nazis, it is illegal in the Czech Republic to engage in speech that denigrates, “a nation, race, ethnic or other group of people,” i.e. hate speech. Like the case discussed earlier about the Anti-Roma television advertisement, Czech citizens are not tolerant of hateful or racist speech. However, in America it is still considered ignorant and hateful, but not illegal to declare your hatred of people. In Snyder v. Phelps, the Supreme Court decided that the Westboro Baptist Church could not be sued for emotional damages after protesting at the funeral of a deceased marine and holding up signs saying things like, “God hates fags,” and, “You’re going to Hell.” Because they did not specifically name the Matthew Snyder, the marine, their speech was protected even though it was offensive and hateful. The mass murder of Jews, Roma, and homosexuals that the Czech Republic endured only seventy years ago has influenced them in their decision to outlaw such hate speech.

 Conclusion

The Czech Republic is a young country, but they have a rich history. From the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the Third Reich, to Communism, and finally Democracy, they have seen it all. Through their history of oppression and censorship and their experience with genocide, they have grown only stronger, and used their experiences to build themselves into one of the freest countries in the world. Because they have seen more hate than most Americans could ever imagine, they do not allow hateful or racist speech, but because of the oppression they faced under the control of the communists, they try to allow as much speech as possible. Censorship is illegal, and the freedoms of expression and information are guaranteed. It is truly inspirational to see a small country that has only been sovereign for two decades grow to be one of the freest in the world.

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(This essay was last updated on April 30, 2015.)

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