Young Czech journalist: School didn't teach me not to generalize, I had to learn that on my own
Jakub Čech seems to be the incarnation of an "old soul" in the body of a teenager. Many people admire him for the constancy and toughness with which he has, since primary school, been fighting a dysfunctional or malfunctioning state administration, while others find him annoying.
The 18-year-old high school student who has gained the respect of the authorities has told Romea.cz, among other matters, that at a certain time he, too, had to grapple with his own prejudices against Romani people. He had to make his own way toward comprehending that generalizations are a dead end.
Čech lives and studies in Prostějov. From an early age he has taken an interest in what is happening in his town, writing for newspapers, tracking down information and being active in civic initiatives.
The student says he has always considered it a matter of course to be engaged as a citizen, not to stay quiet if something bad happens, and to contribute to local public life. He has appeared in the media in connection with his public activities and has contributed to newspapers from an early age as well.
In response to his warning of problems connected with local politicians he has been reported by those figures to the police or received threats of lawsuits from them. This year he received the Journalism Prize for articles published in the Hanácký regional edition of Večerník (Evening News), while last year he won the Prize for Courage from the Anticorruption Endowment (Nadační fond proti korupci).
Q: Everybody is fascinated by your age. Are you charitable about that, or are you rolling your eyes over it already? Do you feel your interests are not the standard problems of other high school students?
A: I have to say that over time, I have come to comprehend that my age is actually a competitive advantage. It makes it possible for to attract a bit more media attention to different scandals than if I were significantly older. It doesn't especially bother me, therefore, although it does always bother me when people take that discriminatory approach in the style of "if you're young, then it's none of your business", and in discussions I frequently hear what others think I should do instead of what I am doing, because it would be more appropriate for my age. As for the interests of people my age, I wouldn't dare generalize about them, to say nothing of judge them. During the previous regime young people had almost no opportunity, for example, to have cultural experiences and just a fraction of information about the outside world made it to people, so they all had similar interests. In today's culturally diverse times interests logically differ as well.
Q: Nevertheless, young people frequently operate across a wide range of different kinds of associations or groupings, even if only because they are bound together by a specific study environment. If you had to compare yourself, for example, with your fellow students, are you just as glad to seek their company as you do the company of adults?
A: I have to say I was always a bit of an odd child in that regard. I really loved listening to adult conversations, at the age of five I preferred to listen to adults speaking rather than playing on the playground, because that involved moving around and I wasn't tempted to do that. If I visited my grandma, the greatest amusement for me was when she spoke with her neighbors in the evening and I could listen. On the other hand, I can't say that all the rest of my peers have been dedicated to certain activities and that I have been the excluded, exotic one, the only one to do something different.
Q: Before you began advocating for some illegal practices to be transformed, did you ever feel shyness or uncertainty about the fact that as a minor (at the time) you were setting out into a territory that adults claim as theirs? Did you need the support of other people - primarily your parents - to take that first step?
A: A certain inborn shyness was probably there, but at the same time I was aware that I have rights and that my being a minor did not prevent me, for example, from going to take a look at the local assembly or from contacting an institution. So in that sense I probably had some kind of self-assurance. However, it can't be said that my parents played a role in it. They always took it as my special hobby, but they did not actively push me in that direction.
Q: You took that first step absolutely independently, then? I'm thinking of the moment that you decided to contact officialdom with your comments.
A: Yes, but it decidedly did not just happen from one day to the next. I noticed matters in the public arena, different things including some that are absolutely banal. For example, I traveled by train on a Sunday, the connection between Olomouc and Pardubice, which is a heavily-used line, and that meant I had to stand, along with many other people, in the train corridor. I was about 10 years old. So I wrote an e-mail to Czech Railways and asked them why they did not allocate an adequate number of train cars for the volume of commuters. They had to be able to suspect that on a Sunday evening, many people would probably be traveling. What I want to illustrate with this case is that it wasn't that I said to myself "Now I will do some damage to City Hall!" - rather, I noticed matters around me and did my best to address them somehow.
Q: Do you remember the first thing that made you angry?
A: I recall the first article I published in the newspaper, it was in the daily Prostějov deník when I was eight. The headline was "Tourists are left in the lurch, info panel not working in the summer", and it was about the fact that the city's information panel for tourists was not working. I was terribly upset because it was in the middle of tourist season. I was also motivated by the fact that the newspaper was paying CZK 100 [EUR 4] for articles by its readers.
Q: What did you buy with that money?
A: Nothing specific. I probably put it in my wallet and saved up for something.
Q: So you were responsible even when it came to money. Have you ever said anything childish or spontaneous? The impression is that you have already grown up in total self-discipline.
A: For me, the spontaneous display was that article, exactly! That actually did happen from one day to the next - I opened the newspaper and there it was written "You'll get a hundred for an article", so I sat down and wrote one. That's absolutely spontaneous, after all. Especially when I was eight and had no experience with it.
Q: You give the impression that you are relatively fearless in the pursuit of your ideas. In addition, you have your own writing style and, apparently, the ability to think analytically and to argue. Have you ever wondered what profession you would like best to do in the future, what you would prefer to do?
A: I enjoy writing articles, both for the local press and for Tiscali.cz, where I do my best to describe bigger scandals a bit more analytically. I choose scandals that are not just in Prostějov, that have some kind of overlap with other issues. Recently, however, I really enjoy working with the laws, applying them, so I would probably be attracted to legal studies.
Q: That's exactly what I wanted to ask: You are already a journalist, but apparently you are also well-oriented in legislation. Might you become a politician?
A: Writing legal filings has amused me recently even more than writing newspaper articles, because in journalism one must constantly think about how to make things easier to understand, how to explain them so it's a good piece of writing and makes sense to readers. In that sense, writing filings to institutions amuses me more.
Q: Are you more attracted to theoretical study, writing, publication, or direct contact and engagement with public affairs?
A: I believe a journalist basically has a chance to engage with public affairs and impact them, sometimes more than an opposition politician would. Entering politics does not absolutely tempt me, I would have to limit myself much more and reflect on how to formulate matters so the voters wouldn't get angry. At this time I would not feel absolutely comfortable doing that. However, I never say never, and it is possible that one day I will be attracted to that endeavor.
Q: Have you found an example of a person who has lasted in Czech politics a longer time and who has not been deformed by it, as a person? Do you believe it is possible not to discredit yourself?
A: That's a trick question. I don't believe it's impossible to be in politics without also failing morally, but I cannot think of such a specific political figure today at this moment. The person who automatically comes to mind is Milada Horáková, who fought all her life for her values and was active as a politician, a socialist, she defended her values actively against two totalitarian regimes, during which the first "just" imprisoned her and the second murdered her outright. That is an inspiring example, but in the Czech context, unfortunately, it is rather frequently flattened out just into "That's the lady the Communists killed."
Q: Milada Horáková also faced a more clear-cut danger, in the case of both regimes. The question is whether today that danger doesn't lurk exactly in the fact that some concepts are devalued and there are so many other different kinds of pressures that it is very difficult to orient oneself in them all. It's hard to label this or that "-ism" as the main enemy.
A: I believe our society is absolutely tolerant about what it gives a pass on to the politicians and we are now seeing this in Prime Minister Babiš in full "bloom". If a politician fails ethically, the public says, "Well, at least he didn't break the law." When he then breaks the law, they say "Well, so what, it's absolutely petty, it's just some legal paragraph, why are you worrying about it?" If a politician has been accused of a crime, the public first waits for the indictment, then they wait for the first-instance verdict, and then they wait for that verdict to take effect, which is what we are seeing with the current Prime Minister. I am convinced that if society were a bit more anchored in its values, Babiš could never have won the elections. Whether the Stork's Nest scandal was a crime will be demonstrated by a court, but at the very least it was an ethical failure - the Prime Minister accessed money he should not have. That was already known during the last elections and despite that, 30 % of voters chose him. It can be seen that it's absolutely all the same to many of them, and the question, therefore, is what exactly it is that they are indifferent to, whether it is the ethical aspect of this matter, or whether the court's verdict will change their opinion, which I have some doubt about.
Q: For the time being you have focused on scandals connected with clientelism and local politics; do you have time to follow social issues as well? Are you following anybody or do you know anybody who takes up the rights of the impoverished, for example?
A: I do my best to follow what is happening here and to have a holistic overview of it, at the end of the day I am a citizen, too. I follow, for example, the Platform for Social Housing, which is connected with local governments to a significant degree because it addresses whether municipalities or the state should be providing housing and under what conditions. So I know a law on social housing has been in the process of being addressed here for quite some time.
Q: Your home town of Prostějov, or rather, the surrounding towns, have repeatedly failed to cope with the situation around the creation of Romani ghettos. How do you see Romani people there and the approach of the town toward them, as a local?
A: To the town's credit, I can say that currently there are not any bigger ghettos here like the ones in northern Bohemia. The approach being taken by the town, nevertheless, is rather odd. On the outskirts it owns a building nicknamed "Parliament", where excluded families are concentrated, Romani ones to a great degree. The building is in an awful state of repair, the apartments are rented for very low amounts of money because it wouldn't work any other way. That building is in such a bad state that if I were the landlord, I would be ashamed to ask for even the CZK 25 [EUR 1] per square meter per month that is the rent today. This seems quite essential to me, because if one does not even have the material conditions to be able to live in a clean place with electricity and heat, then it's difficult to prepare for school or fulfill other obligations. In that respect I do appreciate Brno's "Housing First" project where, unlike elsewhere, the city is doing its best to actively address, first and foremost, giving people homes. The people living in "Parliament" may have some kind of home there, but during the many years that the building has been deteriorating, the town has never fixed it and in my opinion that is an absolute disgrace.
Q: You know the opinion, though, that if one actually wants something, one will manage to achieve it on one's own...
A: I am familiar with it, for example, my brother is intensely convinced that everybody here has essentially the same starting line. That seems absolutely absurd and stupid to me. Those who make that argument are incapable of comprehending that everybody does not have the same conditions at the beginning, simply put, that people are being discriminated against, that is possible here, it makes a damned big difference whether you are born into a poor or a rich family, that fact forms both people's prerequisites for studying and their social lives.
Q: If you had to identify the main culprits behind the housing situation and the so-called trafficking in poverty, which systemic components would you say are the ones that have most markedly contributed to the creation of this situation?
A: Generally, it's the different non-bank companies offering loans under financial conditions that are crazy in various ways. By the way, exactly this topic should be taught to pupils in primary schools today, much greater emphasis should be placed on financial literacy. Then, to a great degree, it's the gaming rooms - I am glad that the gambling law managed to pass and that gaming rooms have begun to be much more regulated than when Kalousek was in charge of the Finance Ministry. Then, naturally, it's the collections agencies, a business through which enormous amounts of money are flowing while the state seems absolutely unable to control it. Many collections proceedings here were basically begun illegally and until now, nobody in power has cared about that.
Q: What do you make of the tone the Czech media use when reporting about Romani people, they way they are reported about?
A: In that connection I have to directly comment on Prostějov, where the periodical Prostějovský večerník is published. Compared to that paper, basically all the other Czech media do their reporting correctly. In Prostějov I am accustomed to absolutely different standards for how it is possible to work with journalistic ethics. I am also in a dispute with that daily over the widest possible range of untruths that they have published about me. I filed a motion against them with the Journalists' Syndicate, including over articles written in the style of "Gypsy hyenas robbed an old lady", etc. The ethics commission at the Syndicate found that their articles are racist, that they contravene journalistic ethics, and that they are even antisemitic. In Prostějov there is a very lively scandal about an ancient Jewish cemetery that a Jewish foundation is striving to restore while the town is fighting them tooth and nail, and the Prostějovský večerník is publishing headlines about that issue that sound like they come from the days of the Nazi Protectorate. A random headline was "Protest against the Jews!" for an article about the fact that somebody has set up a petition committee to fight the plan to restore the Jewish cemetery. One may or may not agree with the opinion that the cemetery should be restored, but framing it this way is sheer chutzpah. Ironically, the author of these antisemitic, racist articles is himself being subjected to approximately 10 collections proceedings and is not exactly well-off materially. Despite that, he apparently feels zero solidarity with anybody else.
Q: To what degree, according to your assessment and observations, is the current generation of your peers influenced by the attitudes of their parents and grandparents toward Romani people and what attitudes are most frequently expressed?
A: In my view many people are influenced not just by what they hear at home, but also by different, partially negative experiences of their own that they then have a tendency to generalize from. Personally I had to fight with this myself until a certain age. At primary school I had to address some problems of my own in that direction and it took me a long time to comprehend that I cannot generalize from the fact that somebody is born with a certain skin color, or attribute the characteristics of one individual to an entire ethnic group. However, it does seem to me that the role of the school here is a bit limited in that respect, given that one has to arrive at that conclusion on one's own. At least, that was my case.
Q: What do you believe is the most difficult task facing your generation with regard to the political situation in Central Europe now and in the decades to come?
A: I am convinced that in the Czech Republic it will be, to a certain degree, the completion of the creation of certain laws and rules that have been lacking here to date. After the revolution it was primarily necessary to de-communize the state, to get rid of what remained in the legislation from the communist times, to transform the state administration, etc. During that process the quality of each law was not always thought about, nor were the many situations that the future brought us. It happens to me very often, for example, that I say to myself "There must be a law for this situation", and then I ascertain that there is not, simply because it never occurred to anybody that things could be done that way. In our town, for example, the Vice-Mayor concluded an employment contract with herself, and that seemed quite funny to me before I ascertained that the law itself does not stipulate that such a thing cannot be done - this is something that would only be apparent from the case-law of the courts. Legislation is simply always lagging behind, as can be seen very well in the sharing economy, like with Airbnb or Uber. Then there is the question of the moral revival of society, which is not something my generation will resolve during the next 15 years. That will happen on a scale that is orders of magnitude longer.
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