Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 7
21 February 2000

Jan Culik Č U L Í K ' S   C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
The Roma Question
The Debate Continues

Jan Čulík

Britské listy under police investigation

It would appear that Britské listy, a Czech political and cultural internet daily and its editor Jan Čulík are under police investigation in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, details of the investigation are still unknown. On Thursday 17 February 2000, Mr Čulík received a telephone call from warrant-officer Vlček from the police department in Zbiroh, a village in the Rokycany district, Western Bohemia. Warrant-officer Vlček was investigating the publication in Britské listy, in both English and Czech, of a press release issued by the Roma National Congress, an "Umbrella Organization Of The European Roma Civil Rights Movement" whose head office is located in Hamburg, Germany, protesting against alleged harassment of Roma in the Czech town of Rokycany.

The press release, dated 24 March 1999, appealed to people anywhere to protest to the Czech authorities against this continued harrassment of Roma in the Czech Republic. It was originally published in English by the Rom news service RomNews Network on 24 March 1999. Britské listy reprinted it on 25 March 1999, pointing out that this was a sample of international news reporting on the situatuion of the Roma in the Czech Republic. On 21 April 1999, Mladá fronta Dnes reported that Oldřich Kožíšek, the Mayor of Rokycany, has received a large amont of mail from across the globe, calling on him to stop the oppression of the Roma in his town. Mladá fronta Dnes added that information about the alleged oppression of Roma in Rokycany had been released by Britské listy, blatenly ignoring the fact that it had already been disseminated worldwide by the RomNews network service.

Warrant-officer Vlček asked various questions about the identity of the editor of Britské listy and the publication of the press release, but was reluctant to provide information about what kind of investigation was being conducted against Britské listy. The police allegedly had information that assertions made in the RomNews network press release were incorrect. The editor of Britské listy has now referred warrant-officer Vlček to the British police, to whom he will happily answer any relevant questions.

In response to this information the RomNews Network has pointed out that after six-years of publicising the conditions of the Roma in the Czech Republic, the police have never admitted any action taken against the Roma. RomNews Network added that the news release in question was based on "serious research, as always" and added that the police investigation of Britské listy can be clearly seen as an assault on the freedom of the press, "which would not happen in the west". It is a matter of course for Britské listy to systematically publish widely differing views. Within the principles of this policy, Britské listy has offered to publish any statement the Czech police may care to provide that would outline their objections to the RomNews network press release. No such statement has so far been received.

It will be an interesting precedent, somewhat reminiscent of Communist methods, if the Czech authorities try to take action against an internet periodical for acquainting the Czech public - in Czech - with examples of th international discourse on conditions within the country. Britské listy strongly reserves the right to inform the Czech public about views and ideas from the outside world, even if these are regarded by some people within the Czech Republic as "incorrect". Britské listy strongly believes in the beneficial effects of open public debate and expects that when any difference of opinions arise, these differences should be cleared up by open, public debate.

Once again: are the Czechs racist?

As an interesting postscript to the recent debate in Britské listy and CER on the attitude of the Czechs towards the Roma, in reaction to the recent Channel Four film on the plight of the Roma in the Czech Republic, journalist František Roček, who has been closely following the development of relations between Czechs and Roma in the North Bohemian town of Ústí nad Labem, published in Britské listy an alternative analysis of relations between Czechs and Roma in that town, which we hereby summarise:

The recent Channel Four film highlighted racist statements made by the supporters of the Czech extreme right wing Republican Party. However, the film failed to mention that the Czech Republicans failed to gain any seats in the Czech parliament at the last elections in 1998, primarily because of the primitive and intolerant policies of their leaders. Skinheads are also on the margins of Czech society. Paradoxically, they are the closest allies of the militant Roma activists. The excesses of both sides obscures the main issue, which is the difficulties of coexistence between the Czech and Roma communities, argues Roček .

The Czech education system is not racist. The Czech "Special Schools", to which many Roma children are sent, are not schools for the mentally retarded. Roma children are sent to these schools after a rigorous psychological and pedagogical diagnosis. Vietnamese, Vietnamese-Czech and even many Roma children do well in normal Czech schools - if their parents bring them up properly. However, many Roma children are not ready to accept regular school attendance, they are not capable of adapting themselves to systematic work. Many have language problems and many have to learn basic hygienic skills. The change from home to school environment is very stressful for them, since they are suddenly faced with a large number of tasks they have not encountered before.

The main problem for many Roma children is the fact that they have not been prepared for school attendance by their family environment. In fact, this segregation is often carried out by the Roma parents themselves. This is why, since 1993, the Czech authorities have introduced a special preparatory "zero" school year for Roma children, the purpose of which is to acclimatise them to the school environment before they enter primary One. This method is highly successful. One such school, a part of the UNESCO network of schools, now exists in the "racist" town of Ústí nad Labem.

It is not true that "70 per cent of pupils in special schools are Roma". Czech education secretary Eduard Zeman says: "There are about 100,000 school age Roma children in the Czech Republic and 33,473 children in the Czech Republic attend special schools. Even if all these children were Roma, the number would be 30 and not 70 per cent. Incidentally, of 1,130,243 pupils in elementary schools in the Czech Republic, less than 3 per cent attend Special Schools - which is a much smaller percentage than the European average."

If you have a look on the internet pages of the Czech government, at the 1997 Report on the situation of the Roma Community in the Czech Republic, you will find a considerable number of recommendations on how to tackle the problem of educating the Roma. Special pedagogical programmes are needed as well as special diagnostics. All of this would need a large amount of injection of financial resources at all levels. In the current financial situation of the Czech Republic, people are trying to implement these principles mostly on the basis of individual, unpaid initiatives.

Czechs are not truly racist. František Roček argues that the ordinary Czech does not manifest truly racist attitudes because the Czechs accept the Vietnamese. The Czechs reject Roma on the basis of a long-term negative experience with them, and only positive experiences with them could ever change this. Roček illustrates this in the history of the Roma in the Ústí nad Labem area.

In 1945, the majority German population was forcibly deported from Northern Bohemia. As a result, after the war, the majority of the inhabitants of Ústí nad Labem were immigrants from elsewhere. The early Roma immigrants to Ústí, who arrived after 1945, were received with distrust, as "skivers" - it was well known that Roma lead the life of travellers and "lived off handouts".

However, as it turned out the large demand for employees in the growing local industries meant that most of these early Roma immigrants were absorbed into the community. As a result, these early Roma immigrants became fully integrated in to the Ústí environment. Their way of life did not differ in any way from the way of life of the majority Czech population. Their children were also totally assimilated.

The Czech Communist government organised the arrival of further Roma from Slovakia in the 1970s and 1980s. In all, some 30,000 Roma moved to Ústí from this area and they constituted some 20 per cent of the total number of inhabitants. These "new Roma" were not used to urban, industrial living

This new "immigration wave" was not welcomed by the inhabitants of Ústí. Most of these immigrants were educationally and socially backward and many of them committed petty criminal offences. Nevertheless, the Communist regime took care of these people - the new Roma arrivals pursued their own way of life, dependent on the abundant social handouts by the communist system. Only in areas with large numbers of Roma other people complained of houses being destroyed, of antisocial behaviour, mess and noise.

In the early 1990s, the Czech authorities tried to prevent the arrival of people with a criminal record from Slovakia by - controversially - denying them Czech citizenship.

The old generation of Ústí Roma lost their hard won social status as a result of the arrival of this "new wave" of "antisocial" Roma. Thus a new attitude developed amongst the majority Ústí population, who came to regard all dark-skinned people as antisocial elements, regardless of their individual behaviour. This has produced considerable bitterness among the older generation of Roma in Ústí, who had been fully integrated into the local society.

After the fall of Communism, there was a general liberalisation at all levels. This lead to a considerable increase in criminality. Young people showed antisocial tendencies because they no longer needed to fear the police. Smuggling, illegal currency deals and prostitution became rife. Roma often took part in these new "business" activities. A number of people became very rich.

It was no longer necessary to have a regular job and to behave inconspicuously, as was the case under Communism. New riches, easily available if you pursued illegal activities, encouraged rowdy behaviour.

In 1991 to 1992, the city of Ústí was plagued by serious Roma hooliganism. It was no longer safe to walk in the city centre even during daylight hours. Cases of mugging proliferated. The city authorities reacted by founding the City Police. As a result, from 1993 onwards criminality was reduced and the overall negative feelings towards Roma decreased.

A serious housing problem has arisen due to the fact that Roma relatives in large numbers keep arriving from Slovakia and they live in the flats of the "new Roma", settled in Ústí, so that a flat for four people may be inhabited by more than twenty persons. The authorities are trying to tackle the situation.

Jan Čulík, 20 February 2000

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.

Archive of Jan Čulík's articles in CER



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