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June 26, 2022



Commentary: Senate hearing on neo-Nazism is “protection against criticism”

Prague, 11.11.2009 10:51, (ROMEA)

“Protecting society against neo-Nazism” was the title of a public hearing held yesterday in the upper chamber of the Czech Parliament, organized by Czech Senator Jaromír Jermář, chair of the Senate Committee for Education, Science, Culture and Human Rights. Some thanks are probably due to the senator, since in addition to the self-congratulatory speeches by police officers and state officials and the empty phrases of some of the politicians, academicians and other speakers, a few valuable expert overviews of the issue of extremism did manage to be presented. However, what did not occur – and its omission often seemed intentional – was any real discussion of the various topics. With one exception, people from civic associations that monitor extremism were given no meaningful opportunity to participate.

“The politicians, police officers, state officials, academics and civil society people in attendance all had the opportunity to watch a 15-minute film on the ultra-right extremist actions at the Janov housing estate in Litvínov last year. The film was presented by Ondřej Cakl of the Tolerance and Civil Society association (Tolerance a občanská společnost) and reflected his long-term experience in monitoring neo-Nazi events.

“We are putting out the fires of a problem that has been minimized”

“The contribution by Deputy Interior Minister Jiří Komorous was worth paying attention to. He said that at this moment we find ourselves in the position of firefighters trying to put out the fires of a problem that has been minimized and underestimated for decades. Extremism would not exist if it were not finding fertile ground. Even though the state of law enforcement is poor in the Czech Republic, politicians believe the police will solve everything for them. Komorous said that while law enforcement is important for addressing extremism, it is only one of many avenues. Not only do the police suffer from their own shortcomings, they are unable to resolve the issue on their own, because it is a problem that covers a broad range of areas. “We must all act together,” he said, adding that at his initiative there are now several working groups at the Interior Ministry doing their best to improve the situation. The first group involves experts who review the options for direct action by the state in this matter, including infiltrating the extremists. The second group involves police officers, state prosecutors and other lawyers who will be developing and proposing legislative changes needed to address extremism. The third group involves people from NGOs exchanging experiences with police officers. The fourth, ad hoc group has been tasked with creating a model for addressing the causes of extremism as rapidly and as simply as possible in cooperation with the central state administration, municipalities and the Roma. This group includes representatives of the Jewish community, Roma and some Christian organizations, as well as Jitka Gjuričová, Director of the Department of Crime Prevention at the Interior Ministry. Together they have designed a project called “Dawn” (Úsvit) which is introducing special police patrols that include Roma police assistants. Komorous says eight such “joint sheriffs” are already patrolling the Chanov housing estate. “If the extremists were to go there today, they wouldn’t stand a chance,” he said.

“Things will probably not be as easy as Komorous suggests. However, we should be grateful that instead of all the empty talk we have been subjected to in the past, someone is actually doing something now.

Superficial media coverage

The speech by political scientist Jan Charvát of the Charles University Faculty of Social Sciences was one of the only presentations that was consistent and reflected a conviction based on the speaker’s values and his genuine expertise. Charvát chose the difficult topic of the extreme right in the Czech Republic and their reflection in the media. Here I will briefly try to summarize his most important points.

The views of psychologists and sociologists are missing from the media discourse on this topc. Media outlets like covering topics related to neo-Nazism, as it is an easy topic to condemn and take a stand on. However, the extreme right is not just neo-Nazi, but has two other main offshoots, xenophobic right-wing populists and fascists - here I would give the example of the National Party (Národní strana - NS). The result of this conceptual confusion is that media evaluations of ultra-right extremism are superficial. Through this superficiality, and because the NS is skilled at presenting itself attractively from a PR point of view, the media has greatly assisted the NS by falling for its propaganda tactics and reporting every trivial matter related to the party. This has exaggerated the actual danger the party represents, as its membership list was only ever a few dozen people at most. Today the party seems to be falling apart, as its chair of many years is leaving and it will not be running candidates in the next elections.

Charvát also noted that the extremists were recently assisted by an interview published in the daily MF Dnes which Deputy Editor Viliam Buchert conducted with Filip Vávra, a leading Czech neo-Nazi and racist ideologue. The interview could never possibly have succeeded in unmasking Vávra for what he really is because “the neo-Nazis cannot publicly declare their real ideology, what they really think. If they were they to do this, they would naturally face criminal prosecution.” In Charvát’s view, Vávra was given the opportunity by MF Dnes to use all of the tactics through which neo-Nazis and racists avoid espousing their true ideology, tactics which lead to such extremists being legitimized. Relieved of their ideological baggage, such neo-Nazi tactics can become acceptable to a wider range of people. Here I must completely agree with the analysis presented.

Changes to the law on assembly?

Jan Wintr of the Charles University Law Faculty also contributed an interesting proposal for discussion: Municipalities could acquire the option, directly through amendments to the law on assembly, to ban gatherings once they begin should they diverge from their originally announced purpose. Wintr referred to a Supreme Administrative Court verdict which demonstrated how very difficult it is to preventively ban a gathering. “It would probably be good to directly insert into the law a provision for banning a gathering once its real purpose is revealed,” Wintr said.

Tightening the law on assembly has already been discussed in civil society circles for several years. Many people involved in civic associations are concerned that tightening the law would also impact freedom of speech for initiatives that are not extremist but which the state or local governments might consider inconvenient. My personal opinion is the law should definitely be tightened. These concerns about the protection of speech are unnecessary, as civic associations can always point out any lawbreaking by officials or police officers and see to it that they are prosecuted.

Danger of the Workers’ Party radicalizing

Martin Linhart, Director of the Czech Interior Ministry Security Policy Department, gave a good presentation reminding those present that should the government’s second attempt to dissolve the extreme-right Workers’ Party fail, the party’s promoters and their actions could radicalize. At the end of September the government proposed once again to the Supreme Administrative Court that the party be dissolved after failing with such a motion in the spring due to a lack of evidence in their proposal.

Here I would like to add that the government’s first attempt failed because then-Interior Minister Ivan Langer submitted the motion in such a way that it was clear from the start that it would never pass. The Workers’ Party was thus given added legitimacy and Langer’s remarkable assistance to the extremists in this respect was quite conscious. To say the motion was poorly prepared by those beneath him would be an insult to the police officers and anti-extremists in the Organized Crime Detection Unit and other experienced police, the vast majority of whom are real professionals. Had it been up to them alone, the original motion to ban the Workers’ Party would have turned out like the second attempt commissioned by current Interior Minister Martin Pecina. This motion has at least some hope of success because the Interior Ministry collaborated on it with the intelligence services and civic associations that have monitored the extremist scene for many years.

Legitimizing extremists

As if Langer’s intentional “dilettantism” and interviews with right-wing extremists in the media were not bad enough, invitations of such extremists to universities to hold discussions with students have no doubt contributed to legitimizing both the extremists and their ideology in the eyes of a not inconsiderable segment of the public. Some civil society representatives were very surprised to see whom the Senate Committee had entrusted with moderating two blocs of the “hearing”. One surprise was political scientist Zdeněk Zbořil, who in 2001 invited Filip Vávra to speak to his seminars at the Charles University Philosophical Faculty – the same Vávra who has participated in attacks on synagogues, giving the Nazi salute in front of them, and in attacks on gay clubs. Zbořil also invited Jan Skácel of the Patriotic Front, a co-organizer of neo-Nazi demonstrations in the late 1990s, to speak to his seminars as well. The second shocking choice of moderator was Professor Jan Rataj, a political scientist from the University of Economics in Prague who also invites extremists to participate in discussions. For example, in his class on “The Czech Radical and Anti-System Right Wing” (“Česká radikální a antisystémová pravice”) the following people have given lectures and participated in debates: Jan Skácel and David Macháček of the Patriotic Front, František Červenka of National Renewal Action, Jan Kopal of the Czech Movement for National Unity, National Party chair Petra Edelmannová and her party colleagues Pavel Sedláček and Michal Ševčík, Petr Kalinovský of the neo-Nazi National Resistance, and others.

When I criticized Rataj for legitimizing extremists this way during the Senate hearing, he said his invitations do not legitimize extremists because he also invites their opponents to the discussions. He then invited me to come to one, and I refused with thanks. Rataj evidently does not realize that those opposed to these would-be ultra-right wing extremist personalities would legitimize the fascists, neo-Nazis and xenophobic populists even more if they were to engage them. We are not happy with the opponents who do voluntarily participate in these discussions, but the greater part of the blame lies with the person who came up with this idea in the first place and made it happen along with the necessary dose of historical memory loss it requires. Zbořil and Rataj have both broken the boundaries of what is socially acceptable and what isn’t. For some unknown reason they are both considered “experts” on extremism, so the media has automatically accepted their transgressions of the bounds of decency. In this respect, it is also sad to see the behavior of the Czech Television public broadcaster, which invites representatives of the National Party, the Workers’ Party, and other extremists to participate in discussion programs. We might have expected a bit more reasonableness from academics than from media editors, who obviously have not the slightest comprehension of the ethics of their profession, but just look how mistaken we can be!

You call this a discussion?

Senator Jaromír Jermář thanked everyone for the discussion at the end of the day, but no discussion ever occurred. The organizers let each bloc run on a little long (as always during such conferences) and therefore discussion was opened only formally. Only a few people from the state, municipalities or the academy were allowed to respond to the contributions, and they only received barely two minutes in which to do so. Despite all of the politicians, police officers and state officials declaring during the seminar how necessary it is to collaborate with civic associations, people from such associations were not allowed to discuss the topic at hand. Markus Pape, the attorney-in-fact for the Roma family from Vítkov that was so brutally victimized by extremists earlier this year, was permitted to speak for only one minute before the moderator cut him off, while Ladislav Baláž, a Roma anti-extremist activist from Havířov, was given no opportunity to speak. Zdeněk Zbořil, however, took up at least five minutes of time discussing completely inessential matters.

Before lunch the organizers promised there would be room for discussion after the afternoon bloc of presentations. There was room, but once again, only those who spoke in the morning were permitted to participate. Moreover, most of the civil society people did not return to the “hearing” after lunch, as they were greatly disappointed in both who had led the seminar and how it had been led.

Jan Rataj, was a complete failure in his role as moderator of the afternoon bloc. After each contribution he spoke for almost five minutes in highly academic gibberish about nothing relevant. Since he kept ostentatiously overlooking my raised hand, I had to move to the center of the hall in order not to be left out of the discussion. Just before letting me take the microphone, he of course announced that the seminar would have to end at 16:00 sharp and said discussants could have only one minute. I therefore simply asked all the politicians present, all the police officers, state officials and academics who had been calling for cooperation with NGOs all day long a simple question: Is this what you call a discussion?

The opinions published in the COMMENTARY section do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editors of the web server or the ROMEA civic association.

František Kostlán, Gwendolyn Albert, František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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