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Czech President attacks some welfare recipients, rejects immigrants, says Interior Ministry is "censoring" the Internet

27.12.2016 19:51
Miloš Zeman (PHOTO: Czech Television)
Miloš Zeman (PHOTO: Czech Television)

Czech President Miloš Zeman has sent his traditional Christmas message from the presidential residence in Lány, expressing appreciation for the good state of the economy being reflected in Czechs' standard of living and criticizing low levels of public investment, alleging that subsidies for renewable energy and some welfare benefits are a drag on the economy. Zeman also rejected the Czech Republic voluntarily accepting immigrants, whom he believes could spawn terrorist attacks.

The head of state also touched on the issue of the European Union, the role of the President, and censorship of the Internet in his message. Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (Czech Social Democratic Party - ČSSD) expressed appreciation for the fact that Zeman had praised the Government's economic outcomes, but the opinions of other politicians about the speech varied.

Zeman said the Czech economy is "running well" despite the fact that economic growth has slightly slowed. He was apparently expressing appreciation for the budget surplus last year, the growth in average wages, and the valorization of old-age pensions that is planned for January.

Just as he did in his speech to the lower house when the 2017 budget was approved, Zeman criticized state subsidies for solar energy and welfare benefits that he believes people allegedly "avoiding work" can abuse. The President also refused the voluntary reception of immigrants onto Czech territory.

Almost nobody today, according to Zeman, doubts the connection between the current wave of immigration and the terrorist attacks that have happened in Belgium, France and Germany this year. Immigrants, according to Zeman, should be aided with remaining in their own countries, or support should be given to Greece and Italy, the entry points for asylum-seekers arriving in Europe, to keep them there.

Zeman said he believes Muslims would be "difficult to reconcile with" the rest of the Czech Republic. He also returned to his criticism of the European Commission and the EU, labeling them as incapable and to blame for the Brits' decision this year to leave.

The Czech President expressed appreciation for the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and rejected what he alleged are attempts to censor the Internet in the Czech Republic. Zeman said he does not want those in the Interior Ministry to become modern book burners, apparently in connection with the planned creation of a center designed to combat disinformation in cyberspace.

"I know that in connection with international tensions, sometimes attempts to censor the Internet appear. I am fundamentally against censorship, with the exception of pornography, especially child pornography," Zeman said.

Anybody who prevents others from making their own arguments just demonstrates a lack of counter-arguments, the President said, but the Interior Ministry responded by sending the Czech News Agency a statement pointing out that its planned center will not censor either the Internet or the media. "The President of the Republic was informed in detail through his office about the work on the National Security Audit, from which the recommendation to establish the Center arose," ministry spokesperson Lenka Nováková told the Czech News Agency.

Nováková said Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec (ČSSD) would instruct the ministry to send the President comprehensive materials about the Center's job description so he will have the opportunity to familiarize himself with it. Zeman criticized the creation of a list of disinformation websites that was undertaken by the European Values think-tank (Evropské hodnoty).

"We don't need censorship, we don't need ideological police," the Czech President said. According to the director of the think-tank, Radek Hokovský, the President's words were very misleading.

"Nowhere have we called for censorship, we are just pointing out the disinformation projects that are systematically manipulating the public. We are not attempting to either ban or silence them," he said.

Zeman also explained his role in the dispute this year between the ANO movement and the ČSSD over the reorganization of the police, which involved combining the anti-corruption unit and the Organized Crime Detection Unit (Útvar pro odhalování organizovaného zločinu - ÚOOZ), saying that in his view, both parties made errors in the dispute that threatened the continued existence of the governing coalition. "The President is supposed to calm situations, conciliate them. If the President takes a side, he can't do that," Zeman said.

Sobotka said he was glad Zeman expressed appreciation for the Government's economic outcomes and wants the positive development in the Czech economy to continue. The chair of the Chamber of Deputies, Jan Hamáček (ČSSD) said he was not surprised by Zeman's message and believed the President's opinions, expressed in condensed form, were already well-known.

The head of the Senate, Milan Štěch (ČSSD) said he considered the speech to have been balanced and objective but that he would argue with the head of state over his criticism of welfare, since in his view firms are not interested in hiring many long-term unemployed people, and he would also take issue with the unreservedly positive assessment of Trump taking office. Vice Prime Minister and chair of the Christian Democrats, Pavel Bělobrádek (KDU-ČSL), had previously stated he would not be watching the President's speech because he would be celebrating Christmas.

First Vice Prime Minister and Finance Minister Andrej Babiš (ANO) called the President's message positive and unifying and said Zeman is a brilliant rhetorician. Babiš also said he disagrees with the head of state's critical opinion of the volume of investment into transportation and his assessment of the police reorganization.

On the other hand, the Finance Minister said he agrees with the President's assessment of the European Commission. According to the chair of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), Petr Fiala, the Czech President just repeated opinions he is known to have and there wasn't much to comment on in the speech.

The chair of the TOP 09 party, Miroslav Kalousek, said the speech lacked a message and vision for the direction in which the Czech Republic should now be heading. Lastly, the head of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, Vojtěch Filip (KSČM), said he considered the speech to have been balanced but that he would have been more critical of the Government on the question of increasing pensions.

ČTK, ryz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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