Czech paper unleashes hateful racist discussion online, may have committed crime
A racist discussion online has been taking place on the Prostějovský večerník ("Prostějov Evening News") news server, and all it took was a few lines of text about a Romani woman who is reportedly receiving "an unbelievable CZK 51 000 a month for four children who aren't even hers from the state!" The online "trailer" for the entire article, which was only fully published in the print version, has been read by almost 100 000 people, several hundred of whom joined an ongoing online discussion beneath it which has been frequently absurd, but predominantly hateful and insulting.
"Roma get cars from the state and live in luxury"
The most distinctive theme permeating the online discussion is the notion that the Romani woman at issue is allegedly receiving such high "welfare" because she is Romani. Readers insist in their posts that the state unfairly privileges Romani people by gving them more welfare than others and ensuring the widest possible range of benefits to them.
This is one of the basic axes around which hatred of Romani people revolves: Many believe the Roma intentionally do not work, do not even want to work, and allow the state to pay for their living expenses, which equals the rest of us paying for them - and yet, for doing nothing, they have higher incomes than "we" do. Most of those participating in the online discussion mutually reinforced this notion.
After participating in such a discussion online, there is no doubt these people come away even more resistant to rational arguments and facts refuting these rumors about Romani "privilege". It is very difficult to hold a realistic discussion of this topic and it is essentially impossible to hold one in the space provided beneath such pieces online.
One reader posted the following: "You're right, there is reverse discirmination here when a white person slaves away for these slackers and they still get various benefits like entry to the swimming pool just by showing their identification, etc. ... It's foul what's going on here and no one is interested in whether the ordinary working person is able to give his children anything, mainly they are interested in the blacks getting fat and driving BMWs. This state has turned me into a racist - really."
Another chooses an even harsher tone: "Everyone who supports gypsies to the detriment of the majority society, who supports immigration into our state and multiculturalism is a TRAITOR. People should remember who they are and retaliate. As long as decent people don't unify into a mass that will honor and implement direct democracy, the current criminals, crooks, miscreants, national vermin, pseudo-humanists, spiritual prostitutes, thieves and traitors will continue to publicly laugh at us with the aid of our corrupted historians, judges, police, politicians, prosecutors, psychologists, sociologists, soldiers, etc., etc. We must find a way to force the governing villains to fulfill the [expletive deleted] of the people in the Czech Republic."
Another even believes that the Czech state buys cars for Romani people: "I'm really pissed off. The entire government [expletive deleted] me. For GYPSIES they do everything to get them to shut up so they won't be [considered] racists. What about our mothers who live below the poverty line and can't feed their children? Our government gives the Roma everything, free entry to the swimming pool, apartments so they have somewhere to live, clothing allowances, children's camps and who knows what else. They even give them money for expensive cars, YUCK OUR GOVERNMENT SHOULD BE ASHAMED."
These readers, on the basis of this manipulative piece, have been confirmed in their suspicions that Romani people live in a luxury that "normal people" can't even dream of: "All you have to do is watch them when they shop. They thoughtlessly throw everything into their carts that they can get their hands on, they don't even look at the price. At the checkout counter their carts are heaped so high they call a taxi so they won't have to carry it all. That's what it looks like when we pay everything for them."
Some readers draw radical conclusions from all this: "I'd give them more [expletive deleted]... but from a MACHINE GUN!!!!" Or: "Up against the wall.... It's filth"
Lawyer: This could be a crime
According to lawyer Klára Kalibová, the publisher is liable for any eventual harm arising to someone as a result of the online discussion. "If harm is caused by an online discussion beneath an article, one can request that a discussion which is essentially biased or includes untruths be stopped. If harm is caused as a consequence of such a discussion, the publisher is liable," she wrote to news server Romea.cz.
A publisher's liability for discussion content on the Internet has been recently confirmed by two court verdicts. The Municipal Court in Prague has convicted the publisher of the Parlamentní listy news server for permitting a racist discussion beneath two different articles.
The publisher in that case has appealed. The European Court of Human Rights has also upheld judgments delivered by courts in Estonia convicting a large local online portal, Delfi, of permitting the publication of an abusive online discussion.
Kalibová has evaluated not just the discussion posts, but the entire article itself from the legal point of view: "There is no doubt that this article impugns the good name of Ms Horvátková, as it depicts her as a person who is allegedly bleeding the social welfare network dry, who has problems with her neighbors, whose children are unruly and who is a cause of the fact that the town where she resides almost had to pay back money back to the state. The information published about her and her children unquestionably violates their personality rights, in particular their good name, honor and privacy (per Section 81 of the New Civil Code). The victim has the right to ask for this interference to cease (e.g., if the report has also been published online, for it to be deleted and not linked to on Facebook) and for the consequences of this interference to be ameliorated (Section 82 NCC). That will be complicated in this specific case because the print version of the newspaper has already been distributed. That means she can request an apology from the author and the publisher and financial compensation for the damages caused (Section 2956)," the lawyer wrote to news server Romea.cz.
She adds: "The behavior of the editor is also not correct. If the information about Ms Horvátková was acquired fraudulently and if its publication borders on libel, then criminal charges can be considered. If the victim did not agree to the publication of her photograph and the photographs of her children, then those photos cannot be published (Section 84 NCC). Even if she has consented to their use, she can retract that consent at any time (Section 87 NCC) and the question of whether the consent given to their use was coerced can also be considered."
The article was billed as an "exclusive reportage" and author Martin Zaoral significantly crossed the line of journalistic ethics. Under the mendacious pretext of writing an article about the death of the wife of the "king" of the Olah Roma, he contacted a surviving relative, her daughter Soňa.
Zaoral manipulated the information provided to him, published photographs of the children Soňa Horvátková cares for without her permission, and produced a hateful article against the Romani family. This is not the first such anti-Romani crusade to be conducted by the paper, which first became infamous for Photoshopping an illustrative photograph that cast aspersions on Roma.
He seemed nice and took an interest in us, but he abused our trust
"At first I didn't want to let him in, but he seemed so nice, he said he had written about my Dad when he died and now he had heard that my Mom had died and he would like to write about that also," Soňa Horvátková describes her meeting with Zaoral. The unannounced guest ultimately made it inside the apartment where she lives with the four children of her siblings, of whom she has temporary custody.
Ms Horvátková says she made the interviewer coffee and answered his questions. In addition to her housing situation, Zaoral reportedly took an interest in how much money she was being paid to take care of the children in her custody.
She says he asserted that the information would certainly not be included in the article he was writing. However, that is exactly what happened.
That information even dominated the headline, which reads "Gypsy woman receives more than CZK 50 000 from the state. Now she wants an apartment too."
"Ms Horvátková told me about Mr Zaoral's visit. She had such gratitude in her voice that someone was taking an interest in her situation. However, he absolutely abused her naiveté and trust. He told her a fairytale about having written about her Dad after his death and now he wanted to write about the death of her Mom, Jadwiga. What startled me the most, with respect to ethical rules, is that his article was published along with photographs of those children," says a staffer with the Dobrá rodina o.p.s. ("Good Family") organization which helps foster families in the Czech Republic and who has been crucial to Soňa Horvátková's family.
"He said he just wanted to write about the death of my Mom and about the fact that I have custody of the children. He asked about other matters, though - and what did he do with that? I'm ashamed to leave my house now, to be among people. The children are in a bad way because of it. My concern is mainly for them. They're reading what people are writing on Facebook beneath that article of his and they're afraid. They're supposed to go back to school when summer vacation is over..." Ms Horvátková told Romea.cz.
Foster care benefits
Out of context
Zaoral's piece discusses more than CZK 50 000 per month for a "Gypsy", as he calls Ms Horvátková. From his reportage, of course, the reader will not learn that the amount of benefits to which she is entitled would be received by anyone with four minors in foster care.
The amount of foster parent benefits is publicly accessible in a summary table on the website of the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry. These benefits are the same for all foster parents in the Czech Republic.
The reporter also did not hesitate to add photographs to his article of three of the four children whom Ms Horvátková, who is herself childless, is now caring for. Zaoral's piece assigns these children, without providing any context for his remarks, into the category of "offenders".
He did not look any further into the context of these children's lives or the reasons they are in foster care. He simply attributed that label to them, publicly.
His article turns the person caring for these children - who have not had an ideal start in life because their parents are in prison - into an "extreme case". What is his reason?
She is receiving the remuneration established by law for providing foster care, to which she is entitled. This is the same amount of money that is received by all foster parents anywhere in the Czech Republic.
At another point in his article, Zaoral calls Ms Horvátková a threat to the town because, as he writes, "due to her high income there is a risk that the town council will be forced to return CZK 23 million in subsidies." Here he is referring to the fact that Ms Horvátková lived for some time together with her parents and her siblings' children, who were being cared for by her mother prior to her death, in a building with social apartments subsidized by the municipality.
Those apartments were intended for families with an income that did not exceed a certain limit established by the town. After foster care benefits were increased by law in 2013, the family exceeded that limit.
Zaoral, however, does not mention in his article that the reason the family continued to live in that apartment was that the municipality took two years to respond to the change. Back then Ms Horvátková also aided the family with childcare when her mother was hospitalized.
When her mother returned from the hospital, she moved to Znojmo with her common-law husband. At the beginning of 2015 her mother stopped being able to care for the children and the household because of her illness, so Ms Horvátková left the Znojmo apartment and returned to Prostějov.
"In the spring of 2015 a letter was sent by the municipality announcing that the family had until the end of June to move out because they had violated the terms of their lease. At that time the child welfare authorities had even assisted Jadwiga Horvátková with filing a request for exceptional treatment so she could retain the apartment, and she documented her expenses and income in that request... However, she did not succeed. After her death, other strange information and 'promises' were made by the town's housing managers," explains the Dobrá rodina staffer familiar with their case.
In his article, Zaoral conspiratorially indicates that the temporary apartment where Ms Horvátková is currently living with the children is known for a "gentleman visitor" - her common-law husband, Mr Rafael. While the apartment is intended for mothers with children, such visits are not prohibited.
Zaoral evidently wanted to clue readers in to the fact that Mr Rafael spends the night in the apartment and is, therefore, another "marauder" from Ms Horvátková's circle. He does not write what his conclusions are based on.
He also does not write that Mr Rafael, according to the Dobrá rodina staffer, is an enormous help to Ms Horvátková. "Mr Rafael is a great source of support to Ms Horvátková. He helps her a great deal with the children when needed. He's absolutely brilliant," the NGO staffer says.
A final question: In the opening of his article, Mr Zaoral sighs that the saying "Whoever doesn't work doesn't eat" has long ceased to apply in the Czech Republic and goes on to say that an extreme example of such a decline in values in Czech society is this particular case. Is caring for four children, in his view, such a negligible matter that it cannot be compared to the work of an "exclusive" reporter for the Prostějovský večerník?
On 3 August, the paper published an article in its print version covering itself in "sackcloth and ashes" for its manipulatively written reportage. It begins the piece by bragging that as many as 100 000 people read the "trailer" for the piece during one week, but contritely expresses regret that many of them felt the need to add racist remarks online "which are inappropriate in such cases."
The paper also printed a statement by Marie Paukejová, the head of the Equal Chances for All counseling center in České Budějovice, as follows: "I have been involved in civic counseling for 20 years, and for 16 of those years our nonprofit organization has run a shelter for mothers with children. I consider the article in Večerník about Ms Horvátková to be misleading. The essence of the piece is the fact that a Romani woman is receiving CZK 51 000 from the state to care for four children. However, as you yourselves report, the children have been placed in foster care with her by the court. Benefits for foster parents are the same for all citizens, they are not dependent upon and cannot be dependent upon ethnicity, work activity, etc. All of this is clearly stated in the laws, and that is why I recommend everyone study those and not spark unnecessary tensions in society."
She also points out that foster care costs the state less than, for example, placing children into a children's home. She asserts that when the courts institutionalize children it costs the taxpayer CZK 36 000 per month per child.
The head of the Prostějov Department of Social Work, Jaroslav Svozil, also contacted the paper about the misleading reportage. "When the court assigns children into foster care, that is done through a very strict regime. Foster parents are entitled to a state contribution. Believe me, this is not just in the case of Romani families. If you were to publish this same story about a foster family from the majority community, it certainly would not have prompted any negative reactions," he is quoted as saying by the paper.
Michal Kadlec, author of the article regretting readers' racism, agrees with that statement. However, as of 3 August this new piece had yet to be posted to the paper's website.
On the contrary - both the paper's Facebook profile and its website remained open to racist discussion posts as of 3 August. Contributors there have mentioned the usefulness of concentration camps and called for the family to be put up against the wall and shot.
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