Czechs Struggle With How Free to Be


Ask anyone here about Miroslav Sladek and the reply is usually the same. Silence. He is not someone most Czechs like to talk about, and they would prefer if he kept his mouth shut as well.

The leader of the far-right Republican Party can be charming. Admirers find his sparkling blue eyes especially enchanting. The problem comes when he speaks his mind or, sometimes worse, acts out his anger.

Sladek once shoved a woman--the mother of a government spokesman--against a glass door after they argued about politics at a beauty salon. He has promised to award an Alfa Romeo to the Czech town that evicts the most Gypsies, a small but unpopular minority across Europe. Many of his constituents believe that the greatest Gypsy crime is being born at all, he told his fellow lawmakers last year.


Ultranationalists are not hard to come by in European politics, from Jean-Marie Le Pen in France to Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky in Russia. What makes Sladek significant is that he may end up behind bars for his beliefs--the first democratically elected political leader in the former Eastern Bloc facing such a punishment since the overthrow of communism.

“His statements are racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic,” said analyst Jan Jirak of Prague’s Charles University. “They represent the worst of hate speech, which for historical reasons is regulated by law in this country.”

Despite general disdain for Sladek’s bigoted politics, his extraordinary criminal prosecution for an inflammatory anti-German statement made months ago poses a nettlesome dilemma for Czech leaders: How can they protect freedom of speech--among the most cherished prizes of the anti-Communist struggle--and guard against age-old hatreds that have historically moved Europeans to violence? Are legal constraints on “hate speech” compatible with the development of young democracies? Or are the new democrats merely repackaging Communist-style oppression for their own purposes?

“At the moment, ‘People vs. Larry Flynt’ is being screened here in Prague,” said Sladek, who reportedly was employed by the government censor’s office but now is among the country’s most articulate proponents of speech freedoms. “I would recommend the leadership of our republic see it at least twice and get acquainted with the Constitution of the United States of America, especially the First Amendment. Right now only official views are permitted here.”

Difficulties with unfettered speech are evident, to varying degrees, in the region’s other evolving democracies.

In Poland, Henryk Jankowski, a flamboyant priest aligned with Solidarity, is under criminal investigation for delivering an anti-Semitic homily. A move is afoot in Hungary to oust a senior member of parliament for pointing out the Jewish origin of a despised Communist-era leader. Both cases have raised questions about the appropriate bounds of free speech.


“It is a return to Communist totalitarianism,” Jankowski complained in January when he was charged with demeaning, ridiculing and humiliating Jews by likening the Star of David to the Nazi swastika and the Communist hammer and sickle.

The predicament posed by hatemongering, even prominent Communist-era dissidents say, necessitates a less absolute standard of free speech than is the norm in the United States.

Demons from the past lurk in every shadow in Central Europe, they warn, waiting for even a momentary gleam of light to gain dangerous legitimacy.

Only with the passage of time--perhaps an entire generation--may the situation change and First Amendment-type free speech guarantees be appropriate, said Jiri Dienstbier, a former Czechoslovak foreign minister who was imprisoned for his anti-Communist views in the 1980s.

“We know how fragile democracy can be if it is not protected,” Dienstbier said. “Right now it is more dangerous to democracy if someone is permitted to fan hatreds like this. What Sladek says strikes a chord in the souls of people.”

But by locking up Sladek, others fear, his outlandish views gain a wider audience, while well-meaning authorities are cast as authoritarian thought police. Limiting freedom of expression erodes public confidence in democracy, possibly releasing more demons than it restrains, said Jan Blaha, a Social Democratic member of Parliament.


“Why on earth should we turn this man into a martyr?” asked Blaha, whose opposition party has opposed Sladek’s prosecution. “It would be much more characteristic of a democracy if the voters simply rejected him at the next election.”

Czech police have charged Sladek, 46, with inciting national and racial hatred, a criminal offense that carries a maximum one-year prison term.

The law, as with most other “hate speech” regulations in the region, was written decades ago by Communist authorities. It encompasses many other prohibitions, including a ban on ridiculing the president and the state. The same provisions were invoked to silence anti-Communist dissidents before the changes of 1989.

The charge against Sladek stems from a stridently anti-German speech he delivered in January at the gates of Prague’s Liechtenstein Palace, where German and Czech leaders had gathered to sign a long-awaited agreement on the countries’ World War II grievances.

The Republican Party, which holds 18 seats in the 200-member lower house of the Czech Parliament, had come to protest the unpopular declaration.

“We can only regret that we killed too few Germans” during the war, Sladek shouted into his microphone before police managed to cut off the power.


The Republican leader made countless other disparaging remarks about the Germans--who along with Jews and Gypsies are his favorite targets--but it was these 10 words (nine in Czech) that authorities determined crossed the criminal threshold.

As a measure of their seriousness in pursuing the case, police have sent two videotapes of Sladek’s 1 1/2-hour diatribe to linguists and historians in Prague, who are studying the contents and will make recommendations to investigators.

“It will help us evaluate the various subtexts,” a police official told reporters. “We must judge it from all sides.”

The Czech Parliament, embarrassed by the incident at a particularly sensitive juncture in ever-touchy relations with Germany, has taken the unusual step of lifting Sladek’s parliamentary immunity, which protects deputies from legal proceedings related to political activities.

The motion passed, 94 to 66, despite efforts by the Social Democrats, the main opposition party, to block it.

The temperamental Republican leader has invoked his parliamentary privilege on numerous occasions to escape criminal responsibility for other “hate” speeches.


His only conviction came in 1995 for striking and insulting a police officer in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. He received a suspended 10-month jail sentence after a court ruled his political immunity did not apply.

If convicted in the Liechtenstein Palace case, he will be required to serve the 1995 sentence.

As with previous run-ins with the law, Sladek is not cooperating with the police.

He said in an interview at his newly renovated parliamentary office that he is prepared to go to jail for his beliefs--just like Vaclav Havel, he added, the dissident playwright who was imprisoned by the Communists and later elected president.

“Freedom of expression is indivisible--either it is for all of us or it is for none of us,” said Sladek, who claims to abhor censorship and denies ever working for the government censor. “Democracy cannot operate on a five-year plan, where certain views are permitted at the beginning and only with time general freedom of expression is allowed. That means the death of democracy before it even begins.”

Jirak, the Charles University professor of mass communications, says he and many other free-speech watchdogs agree with Sladek but that the Republican leader’s argument clashes with practical realities in the former Eastern Bloc.

The region’s new democracies, including the Czech Republic, still lack the self-confidence to allow an unregulated free market of ideas, Jirak said.


The desire to keep people like Sladek under wraps, he said, is not limited to the halls of Parliament but is embraced by journalists, jurists and the public at large.

“The weakest link in the whole democratic process here is the public itself,” Jirak said. “Any politician who has the right to win or lose an election should also have the right not to be expelled from the game. But it is difficult to explain that to people who remember that Adolf Hitler was elected in a parliamentary election, and if there had been such hate laws in 1937, the Second World War may never have happened.”

The debate is further clouded by a growing intolerance in the Czech Republic for minorities Sladek has made the centerpiece of his hate campaign.

Gypsies, in particular, have been victims of beatings, killings and public discrimination.

Dienstbier, the former foreign minister, said the hardships of economic transformation and seemingly fruitless political bickering in Parliament have led many disillusioned Czechs to search for scapegoats.

“If there wasn’t this general lack of confidence in society, Sladek and his party might be out of Parliament right now,” Dienstbier said. “But I speak to people who say, ‘I will never vote for Sladek, but what he says is true.’ Of course Sladek hasn’t killed Gypsies, but he is speaking in such a way that others could be influenced by him.”

The same fears have led some Western European countries, particularly Germany, to impose severe restrictions on political activities of extremist groups, including banning some forms of speech.


Dienstbier said it is appropriate for the Czech Republic to follow the example of its European neighbors, not a distant American model that was born of different historical circumstances.

But Jiri Pehe, director of research at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty in Prague, said such an approach carries added risks for inexperienced democracies, where legal infringements of civil liberties have a greater chance of being abused, especially in unforeseen moments of crisis.

“All of the young democracies in Central Europe love to tell the world how stable they are, but these kinds of laws are evidence of how unstable they really are,” Pehe said.

So far, according to New York-based Freedom House, there has been no widespread abuse of free-speech regulations, and when the laws have been applied, the penalties have not been harsh.

Adrian Karatnycky, Freedom House president, said the Sladek debate is actually testimony to the region’s emerging democratic consciousness.

“In the United States, we have restrictions sometimes on whether Nazis can march on certain streets or whether people can demonstrate in front of embassies,” Karatnycky said. “What is happening in Central Europe is a similar expression of democratic life, of a society grappling with its new freedoms, rather than one going in the other direction.”