Czech human rights defender calls for media regulation in light of anti-Roma events
Anna Šabatová, a human rights defender and former chair of the Czech Helsinki Committee, says educating children in the schools to be racially tolerant and regulating the media and public discussions are the cure for widespread anti-Romani sentiment in society. The Czech Security Information Service (Bezpečnostní informační služba - BIS) has recently joined the Czech Helsinki Committee in warning of the dangers of antigypsyism in the country, reporting that anti-Romani demonstrations are no longer being attended just by right-wing extremists, but also by ordinary people.
Amnesty International has also highlighted the situation of Romani people in a recent report, primarily criticizing Romani children's unequal access to education in the Czech Republic. The report also states that Romani people here continue to be subjected to attacks and forced evictions.
Ms Šabatová has given the following interview to news server iDNES.cz:
Q: In its annual report [the Czech Helsinki Committee] focus[es] on the question of the deteriorating standard of living in the Czech Republic. What, in your view, is the cause of that deterioration?
A: I believe the vast majority of the reasons for it lie with the government and its policies. Naturally, we cannot forget that the economic crisis objectively exists, but its repercussions could have been dealt with far better. We can see this in neighboring countries whose governments responded to the crisis in time. If Czech politicians had introduced effective measures, the crisis would not have afflicted people here to such an extent. In comparison with those neighboring states, our redistribution of the resources available within the social policy framework is very anti-social and unjust. Compared to Austria, Poland or Slovakia, all of which have also been reporting growth for some time, we are falling behind.
Q: You also talk about the deteriorating position of Romani people in the Czech Republic. Does that only concern problematic border regions, or is their situation deteriorating everywhere?
A: It is definitely bad throughout the entire territory, because Romani people face enormous discrimination in education, on the housing market, and on the labor market. This is connected to the fact that there is still no law on social housing in this country, not for any at-risk group. In those localities where more Romani people live, the repercussions are stronger, but this problem also concerns Romani people living in the heart of the Czech Republic and throughout the whole country - and not just them.
Q: Is aversion to foreigners also growing, or does this just concern Romani people?
A: We collaborate with NGOs that focus on the issue of foreigners, and we are also analyzing their situation ourselves. That is why I am of the opinion that intolerance is growing against other population groups as well. Society is very frustrated and unfortunately is venting that frustration in very inappropriate ways. For example, I do not understand why we don't have a sufficiently effective mechanism here for monitoring online discussions. Commentaries should be regulated and the inappropriate ones should be deleted. Elsewhere in the world such systems are a normal part of online operations [Editor's Note: News server iDNES.cz edits online discussions and deletes inappropriate or racist posts].
Q: Are you saying the internet or the media are playing a significant role in this issue?
A: Yes, because they are breaking down the line between what is and is not possible. This concerns all debates that disseminate hatred. I include criticism of deceased figures in this - I believe this is all just irrational. For some reason there evidently exist people who need to write hateful, often mendacious articles, and no one is stopping their dissemination.
Q: Do you believe the growing number of suicides in the Czech Republic is linked to deteriorating living standards and the frustration they engender?
A: Yes, there could be a certain connection. There are definitely many different factors involved with suicides, but the deteriorating standard of living could also be influencing them. Suicide results from a combination of external and internal causes, there must be some tendency toward it in the psyche. However, the frustration caused by a hopeless personal situation could be a factor.
Q: What did [the Czech Helsinki Committee] base its report on and why have you published it now?
A: The report concerns almost every area of human rights and is the product of several long months of work. We issue this report annually, even though this year we did so three months later than usual. It draws on a great number of sources, such as newspaper reports, verdicts, and the results of our organization's work and that of the NGOs we collaborate with. The report is created on the basis of this long-term research and our own experiences.
Q: Could education on this issue and the way we nurture our children improve the situation?
A: Definitely. Teachers bear enormous responsibility for this. They should be actively educating children to be tolerant, and they should know how to work with the prejudices children encounter, for example, at home or elsewhere outside the school. Teachers should explain, in a sensitive way, that prejudices are incorrect. That, in my view, is an effective way forward.
Q: In what other ways, in your opinion, can ethnic and racial hatred be resolved?
A: Personalities who are looked up to by others - actors, for example - should be aware of the role they play in this. Politicians above all bear great responsibility, and in the first place they should not be silent when something is going on, by which I mean these marches against Romani people. They should take a stand on such events. In the second place, they should weigh their words when they refer to this issue. To summarize, it is essential to regulate the media and public discussions and to educate children in the schools to be racially tolerant. Famous figures must do and say things that do not further incite hatred. Social policy is also important. The policy must be just, that is an important supposition. We will probably never reach an ideal state, but hatred must not be disseminated publicly with impunity.
Who is Anna Šabatová?
Born in 1951 in Brno, Anna Šabatová signed Charter 77 and was a co-founder of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted in Czechoslovakia. In 1998 she was awarded the United Nations Prize for Defending Human Rights. From 2001-2007 she worked as the country's first-ever Deputy Public Defender of Rights (ombudsperson). From 2008 - 2013 she was chair of the Czech Helsinki Committee. She is married to the journalist Petr Uhl. They have three children: Pavel, Alexander and Michael.
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