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Czech journalist Petr Uhl celebrates his 75th birthday: Always room for improvement on human rights

8.10.2016 20:57
Petr Uhl
Petr Uhl

The journalist, former dissident, signatory of Charter 77, former General Director of the Czech News Agency and the Czech Republic's first-ever Human Rights Commissioner Petr Uhl, is celebrating his 75th birthday today, 8 October. The former commentator for the Czech daily Právo has also been a member of the board of public broadcaster Czech Television and of the Czech Government Human Rights Council.

In 2006 Mr Uhl ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Chamber of Deputies on the Green Party ticket, after which he left the party. He currently publishes his opinion pieces on the websites Alarm, Deník Referendum, and Romea.cz.

Uhl believes that it is always possible to improve when it comes to protecting human rights, although the Czech Republic is doing rather well in that regard today. In his view, human rights deserve their own entire ministry.

The longtime activist expressed appreciation for improvements to the position of persons living with disabilities, but said he believes work is primarily necessary in the areas of children's rights, gender issues, and the rights of sexual minorities. The Czech Republic is better on human rights protections than Hungary, Poland or Slovakia, Uhl said.

"I am, however, very dissatisfied with the laws ensuring human rights protections in this country," he said. The Human Rights Minister does not actually have its own ministry, budget line, or option to issue decrees, which means its options are very restricted, in Uhl's view.

"That cabinet post is just a souped-up commissioner, it's no solution," he explained. He also has reservations about how gender issues are being addressed.

"Women are frequently disadvantaged compared to men. It starts in nursery school and continues through to retirement, you will encounter gender problems at every point in women's lives," said Uhl, whose wife, Anna Šabatová, is the current Public Defender of Rights.

This is connected, in his view, to the necessity of improving legislation guaranteeing the rights of children and of LGBT people. "The position of the child here continues to be undignified, in human terms," Uhl said.

The former Human Rights Commissioner expressed appreciation for Czech Education Minister Kateřina Valachová (Czech Social Democratic Party - ČSSD) in that context for including children with disabilities into mainstream schools. In addition to his human rights work for the Czech Government, Uhl was also the General Director of the Czech News Agency (ČTK) after 1989, the role he said he appreciated most of all.

"I appreciate that ČTK opened itself up to freedom of speech - for me, when I went there, I was an element that had to be integrated, I was integrating into a society that I didn't know, and I had always defined myself in opposition to its political establishment," Uhl said. After he was dismissed from the post of director he remained at the wire service as a correspondent and publications editor.

When he left the news agency, he worked as Editor-in-Chief of the bimonthly Listy magazine, and later became a commentator for the daily Právo. He left that role roughly one year ago and ever since has primarily contributed to the online publications Alarm, Deník Referendum, and Romea.cz.

In his pieces, Uhl focuses in particular on minority protections, such as the position of migrants, Romani people, or Sudeten Germans. Last year he criticized the Czech Government for rejecting quotas for refugee reception.

Uhl believes the Government did not demonstrate solidarity, which is the basis of the European Union, on that issue. However, he is not surprised that many parties have banked on the topic of the migration crisis in the runup to this weekend's regional and Senate elections.

"Politicians have understood that fear is a powerful motivator of votes. Nobody is worried about things such as a lack of democracy - people must be afraid," he said.

The other parties, according to Uhl, will have a difficult time facing down that fear. However, he sees developments in the Government's approach to the migration crisis as positive.

Uhl said it is important not to just pay attention to the opinions of official governments. "I also notice the atmosphere of civil society, of which I am a part," he said, sporting a badge with the quote from Angela Merkel about the refugee crisis, "We can do it".  

Basic biographic information about Petr Uhl 

The longtime human rights advocate was born in Prague, where he graduated from the Czech Technical University (ČVUT). After that he briefly worked as an engineer and a manager, and from 1966 until his first prison sentence he was a high school teacher.

Uhl was first arrested in December 1969 for his political opinions, tried together with other members of the Movement of Revolutionary Youth, and subsequently sentenced to four years in prison for alleged subversion of the republic. After his release he worked as a planner in the national Potrubí (Pipeline) enterprise in Prague.

He was an activist, co-founder, and signatory of Charter 77 and for many long years published the independent magazine "Information about Charter 77". He also co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS).

He was convicted a second time of alleged subversion of the republic in 1979 because of his activity in VONS. He served his five-year sentence in the prisons at Mírov and at Vinařice.

The dissident was imprisoned for a third and last time on 19 November 1989. After the Velvet Revolution he got involved in the work of Civic Forum (Občanské fórum - OF), running on their ticket and being elected a deputy of the Chamber of Nations (Sněmovna národů) of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly.

Uhl has been a member of several political movements and parties. His wife, Anna Šabatová, is currently the Public Defender of Rights (ombudsperson) and they have three children.   

ČTK, ryz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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