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Czech President's rude wisecrack tars all Roma with the same brush

Prague, 20.6.2014 15:45, (ROMEA)
Miloš Zeman
Miloš Zeman

Several Czech media outlets have reported that a Romani woman who asked Czech President Miloš Zeman when members of her community would get decent housing received the following wisecrack in response:  "We need to clarify what is meant by the concept of decent housing. It means that I don't trash the apartment I am paying for. I don't tear up the floorboards to make a little fire, I don't remove the windows, I don't turn the hallways into a dump. The right to decent housing also means the obligation to reside somewhere decently. It's sincerely all the same to me whether someone is non-Romani or Romani. We must measure everyone according to the same standards. Someone either knows how to reside somewhere and get along with their neighbors or doesn't, and when they don't, they lose their entitlement." 

News server Romea.cz first wanted to verify whether Zeman actually said this, because he is being praised for it online by various racist hell-raisers, primarily on several websites run by the tabloid Parlamentní listy. We therefore wrote the following question to him:  

"Dear Mr President, we would like to verify whether you have actually said this or whether the media are distorting what you said. If your statement has been reported accurately, could you give us more of an explanation? Do you believe this kind of generalization is acceptable?"

Jiří Ovčáček, the President's press spokesperson and director of his Press Office, responded promptly, if very briefly:  "Mr President expressed himself on the question of decent housing during a debate with the citizens. The answer he provided concerns every single one of us, whether non-Romani or Romani."

The spokesperson basically did not answer our question, but indirectly confirmed that the President did indeed formulate his wisecrack as the media reported. However, Zeman's response at the meeting in Liberec definitely does not concern "every single one of us", as his spokesperson claims - it's about Romani people. 

Karel Holomek, chair of the Romani Society of Moravia, a non-governmental organization, hit the nail on the head when he commented on the President's remarks on his blog:

"Given that the woman concerned was Romani and that the President evidently could not have known anything else about her, his answer was downright rude. He also never answered her question. He has committed an unacceptable generalization and tarred all Romani people with the same brush. Lastly, he wasn't even describing reality, because Romani people have not been using the floorboards for fuel in their apartments in the Czech Republic for at least 50 years. That's rather a lot of faux pas for one President! Whose job was he doing? It almost makes me want to hold a 'happening' with a few Romani friends and set some floorboards on fire beneath the windows of his apartment at Prague Castle."   

All we can add is that Zeman has basically said the same thing another luminary, Jiří Čunek, said years ago. "You have to go get a suntan somewhere and you and your family have to make a mess, light a fire on the town square and then some politicians will stand up for you and say 'The poor guy'," Čunek said, referring to Romani people.   

The difference is that Čunek's remarks were criticized both by human rights advocates and the media, and a demonstration in front of the Office of the Government was held, while today Zeman is being praised for his remarks by several anti-Romani haters. Human rights advocates and the media are silent.  

Zeman's enthusiasm for wisecracks is an unfortunate way for a President to express his opinions, as any wisecrack simplifies everything to such an extent that it has little to do with reality. Not to mention generalizations that are covert references to collective blame. 

František Kostlán, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Miloš Zeman, Paušalizace, prezident, Romani people



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