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Czech President's spokesperson criticizes academics for expressing solidarity with refugees

18.8.2015 18:42
Jiří Ovčáček, director of the Press Department and press spokesperson for the President of the Czech Republic (2015). (PHOTO:  David Sedlecký, Wikimedia Commons)
Jiří Ovčáček, director of the Press Department and press spokesperson for the President of the Czech Republic (2015). (PHOTO: David Sedlecký, Wikimedia Commons)

Jiří Ovčáček, press spokesperson for Czech President Zeman, has criticized hundreds of Czech scholars for expressing tolerance for refugees. Ovčáček said he believes the petition they released yesterday is "broadening the gulf between so-called elites and the rest of Czech society".  

Speaking at a press conference today, Ovčáček gave what he said was his personal opinion of academics' activity. Pavel Jungwirth, a physical chemist, responded to the Czech News Agency that the petition is infact designed to bridge that gulf.  

The challenge, entitled "Academics against Fear and Indifference", has now been signed by more than 1 500 figures, according to its website. According to biochemist Helena Illnerová, a past president of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic (AV ČR), it is the most respectable expression possible of the academics' views about how Czech society should behave.

Illnerová said foreign nationals must be understood as human beings who have their own dignity. Responding to the Czech News Agency, she said the petition was a general call for a return to the values of humanity and solidarity.  

Members of the public may also sign the petition. "Mr President has given me permission to communicate my own personal opinion on this issue, if you will allow me," Ovčáček said today. "This activity merely broadens the gulf between the so-called elites and the rest of Czech society."  

The press spokesperson said the best response to the petition would be to paraphrase its content. "Everyone living in Europe should be guaranteed dignified treatment and security," he declared.

Jungwirth said it seemed to him that Ovčáček was pursuing some sort of personal agenda by making his statement. He also said academics are doing their best to encourage the members of Czech society to behave with maturity irrespective of whether one is or is not an intellectual.  

The aim of the challenge, in his view, is to get people to think rationally about problems so they can be solved. "We should not let ourselves be moved by emotions, which is what Mr President does when he says that money spent on immigrants is being taken away from needy Czech children. That is precisely the kind of reasoning we are against. That is what divides society, because it is Mr President who is dividing society. We, on the contrary, are doing our best to unite society around rational aims and thought," Jungwirth said.

Czech Minister for Human Rights, Equal Opportunities and Legislation Jiří Dienstbier said it is very good that the academic community in particular has decided to publish such a challenge. "I greatly appreciate this. Academic, cultural and moral figures, just like students, should undertake such activities more frequently, it is essential in a democratic society. We all create society, just as we create the level of its debate. I would be glad if the authors of this challenge could be heard and seen, including through the media, to the same degree that the extremists and populists are. The media gives disproportionate space to the extremists and populists," Dienstbier said.    

In the petition, hundreds of academics, college staffers and university professors object to the growth in xenophobic sentiment in Czech society. They are disturbed by the activity of extremist groups which they believe is not being sufficiently counter-balanced.

The scholars call on politicians to take their actual options into account when it comes to refugee reception, not the fickle moods of public opinion. They also demand that politicians not abuse the misfortune of strangers in order to score cheap political points.  

The academics also appeal to the media to report truthfully on these and other matters and to stop spreading artificial panic and sensationalism. Lastly, they ask the public to be careful in their judgments and to not allow themselves to be manipulated.

The challenge has been supported by scholars across many fields of endeavor. It has been signed by the theologian Tomáš Halík, by Václav Hořejší, the director of the Institute of Molecular Genetics at the AV ČR, by Illnerová, by theater critic Vladimír Just, by literary historian Martin C. Putna, by historian Jan Rychlík and by philosopher Jan Sokol.

Most Czechs are against receiving refugees from the southern hemisphere; a June survey by the Center for Public Opinion Research found that more than 70 % of those living in the Czech Republic are of that opinion. The academics say that to a great extent the cause of those concerns is fear of the unknown.  

ČTK, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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