The Nature of Czech Xenophobia

Reports from foreigners living in Prague list a number of woes in regard to Czechs’ unwelcoming behavior: the service in restaurants is terrible, nobody speaks English, if the locals even speak to you, they never smile, it’s not easy to befriend Czechs, they don’t invite you to their homes. The list seems to go on forever. The prevailing opinion holds that the exaggerated fear and dislike of strangers is an ugly mark left by the socialist era – the period of the mass paranoia, distrust and reclusiveness. It is noteworthy, however, that compared to the neighboring East and Central European states there is not a single far-right party in Czech politics – a rare occurrence on the pan-European scale. This doesn’t necessarily indicate the absence of xenophobic sentiments in the country, but rather sheds light on the suppressed and self-censoring nature of Czech racism.

Disturbingly, Jobbik, Hungary’s openly anti-Semitic and anti-Roma far-right party won 17 percent of the vote in the 2010 general elections and the popularity of far-right ideas in the country has doubled throughout the last ten years. Slovakia, Czech Republic’s Eastern neighbor is not far off: its Slovak National Party leader, Jan Slota has enjoyed a parliament seat since 1990 despite his notorious anti-Hungarian remarks. Bulgaria’s right wing party, Ataka, is openly hostile towards the country’s Turkish residents, but this hasn’t prevented it from gaining over 20 seats in parliament every election since 2005.

To be fair, Czech politics have never been entirely immune from right-wing radicalism. The Workers Party, established in 2003, was described as anti-Semitic, xenophobic, homophobic and neo-Nazi. However, the party no longer exists, at least in an official capacity. The court banned the Workers Party in February 2010 following a rise in violence and hatred against the Roma minority group. The party was expelled primarily due to rising governmental concerns that the right wing party was exploiting the economic downturn to incite racial hatred and make scapegoats of minorities in the country. At one point the radical sentiment turned so violent that a 3-year-old Roma girl was badly burned in a racial assault in the small town of Vítkov, Eastern Czech Republic.

“The official minority groups benefit from the same rights and privileges as the natives in Czech Republic as far as the basic citizenship rights are concerned,” says Jakub Stredron, director of Czech House of National Minorities, a city-funded center serving needs the minority groups. However, some groups enjoy greater socioeconomic statuses than others, and greater opportunities of participation in a legislative body. “Sexual minorities are represented in the Czech parliament,” says Stredron, but other national minority groups are not as present. Only a small number of ethnic Slovaks hold high ranks in the Czech government. At one point under Jan Fischer’s cabinet in 2009-2010, three out of 17 government members were ethnic Slovaks; one of the three, Minister of Transport Gustáv Slamečka, received Czech citizenship right before receiving the job – Slamečka’s Slovak citizenship was a minor obstacle to gaining the minister’s position, says Stredron.Still, prestigious governmental jobs are not so freely available for other minority groups in the Czech Republic; the participation of Roma in high-rank or even white-collar jobs is very low. Unsurprisingly, the natural outcome of this situation is a lack of Roma issues in the general public discourse and their alienation from mainstream social and political life. In effect, this leads to great discrimination.

Media Representations

Representation of minority groups within the Czech media is another complex issue. A study involving the Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) of media texts, called Antimetrics, was designed specifically to detect signs of hate speech in Czech media.[1] The study claimed,“to create a diagnostic test for discerning varieties of hate speech in a society,” with the ultimate aim to prevent hate “from developing into more embedded prejudice and ultimately violence.” The Antimetrics project sought to unveil implicit racist discourse.Specifically, the study looked at the nature of “New Racism” in the Czech media. Marxist and professor of film, Martin Baker, first coined the term in 1981, referring to allegedly racist public discourse on immigrants during the Margaret Thatcher years in the UK. Linguists and scholars, like Teun A. van Dijk, developed the term further.

Van Dijk calls “New Racism” the modern prototype of “old” racism (apartheid, slavery, segregation), but with a more covert nature, which poses a different potential threat and harm to minority groups.Further, according to van Dijk, “New Racism” claims to be democratic and fair and rejects that it is racism at all: “Minorities are not biologically inferior, but different. They have a different culture, although in many respects there are deficiencies, such as single-parent families, drug abuse, lacking achievement values, and dependence on welfare and affirmative action –‘ pathologies’ that need to be corrected.”[2]In his prominent study, van Dijk analyzed one article on immigration in the British daily The Sun. The article, in its classic terminology, portrayed Britain as being “swamped” by an “army of illegals.” The language of the article was so defamatory that the piece could arguably be seen less as a standard of the “New Racism” than a flashback to the “old,” flaunting an openly bigoted agenda as was used to cover immigration in the 1960s. Moreover, research conducted by Catherine Rothon and Anthony Heath of Oxford University found an increase in the self-reported racism among the British people, which they linked with the overly negative media portrayal of asylum seekers and immigrants. The study found a long-term correlation between self-reported prejudice and hostile newspaper coverage of immigration in Britain. In contrast, Antimetrics team researcher, Tess Slavíčková, claims that the overtly racist and xenophobic speech in the Czech press is a rare occurrence – a far cry from the plain defamatory nature of certain British tabloids.The study attributes the lack of blatantly pejorative language in the Czech media to the “professional commitment to journalistic neutrality.” That said, the final findings of the project contain some troubling elements in the Czech media: evidence of the milder indications of xenophobic hate speech were found to be abundant. Moreover, the study uncovered the trend of victimhood perceptions in the ethnic majority of the country with Czechs repeatedly portrayed as innocent prey of migrant deviants.Due to the poor quality control of media content and insufficient monitoring in the editorial rooms, according to the report, the dangerous patterns of “victimhood” and implicit hate speech has the potential to grow in the future.In journalistic reporting in the Czech Republic, hate speech is often disguised by dysphemistic slang and jokes, the skewing of events or personalities, prioritization of narrative coherence over factual precision, the over-representation of heroes versus villains, and the silencing of crucial witnesses to events. Moreover, the study asserts that the minorities are rarely the information providers or the authoritative commentators for the news stories. In fact, Vietnamese and Roma, two of the largest minorities in the Czech Republic, are seldom shown in the news apart from in crime reports.Another study of Roma representation in Czech TV presents a similar picture. The research conducted by Ivan Leudar and Jiří Nekvapil about how Roma are depicted in Czech programs exposed a high level of “warranted” descriptions of the minority group present in the shows.[3] According to the study, the program participants seemed to express a common knowledge whilst discussing the Roma as “those who do not live like normal people, who create problems and commit crime.” The researchers expressed indignation at how little they learned about the Roma people and their lives from the shows and that the minority group was increasingly characterized “by the absence of positive qualities.”Slavíčková doesn’t find the situation particularly dangerous. She notes, however, that racist discourse has penetrated the different political parties: “Even though there’s no far right movement in the Czech politics, the patterns of the radical ideology traditionally associated with such groups are to be found throughout a considerable portion of the local political spectrum.”Thus, it can be argued that the xenophobic/racist discourse in Czech Republic has a self-contradictory nature. On the surface, the waters rarely seem to boil – neither media nor government openly voices disdain. However, closer inspection of the country’s inner dynamics paints a direr picture of restrained anger and quenched animosity towards minority groups.The Czech Republic shows a decent outer façade with its treatment of immigrants with the anger and frustration internalized and neatly repressed. That may arguably be preferable to the radical far right political outcries in Slovakia and Hungary or to the overly defamatory and partisan nature of the British tabloids. One may argue, however, that guaranteeing free speech may be better for democracy – revealing racism can be better than camouflaging it. After all, the danger of dormant volcanoes should not be underestimated; their potential is as great as those that are active.

Photo: Far-right gathering in Brno, Czech Republic in May 2011 was supposed to march through mostly Roma neighborhoods. More than 1,000 people came out to counter the extremist march.

About the author

Ekaterine Lolashvili studies mass media and communications at the University of New York in Prague. She is currently interning at The New Presence.[1] Tess Slavickova and Peter Zvagulis “CDA as a tool for monitoring hate speech in the Czech print media” 2010:1-8

[2] Teun A. van Dijk “New (S) Racism: A Discourse Analytical Approach” 2000:34.

[3] Ivan Leudar and Jiří Nekvapil “Presentations of Romanies in the Czech Media: On Category Work in Television Debates,” Discourse & Society, 2000: 506-507.

published: 16. 6. 2013

Datum publikace:
16. 6. 2013
Autor článku:
Ekaterine Lolashvili