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Czech Republic: Havel Denounces Czech Media Over Anti-Charter Coverage

  • Jolyon Naegele

Signatories of the Czech Charter 77 human rights document gathered in the Czech Senate yesterday to mark the 25th anniversary of one of the first independent human rights initiatives in the Soviet bloc. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele was there and reports that Czech President Vaclav Havel used the occasion to denounce the Czech news media's recent coverage of the former communist regime's so-called "Anti-Charter."

Prague, 30 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Vintage recordings of RFE/RL, Voice of America and BBC broadcasts to communist Czechoslovakia and once illegal anti-state videos echoed and flashed last night through the opulent baroque halls of the Wallenstein Palace (Valdstejnsky Palac), now the seat of the Czech Senate. The occasion was the 25th anniversary of an independent Czech human rights initiative that encompassed virtually the entire political spectrum.

The guest of honor at this reception for several hundred Charter 77 signatories was the sole survivor among the first three Charter spokesmen -- persecuted dissident playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel.

Havel said Charter 77 was marked by "a special atmosphere of mutual understanding, tolerance, and the will to help each other in solidarity." He devoted most of his brief address to the former communist regime's attempt in the weeks following Charter 77's publication to co-opt and compromise public figures -- above all in the fields of culture and show business -- by requiring them to sign a document denouncing Charter 77, or else face the risk of being banned from public life.

This document -- which came to be known as the Anti-Charter -- denounced Charter 77's signers. It was recently republished in the conservative Czech daily "Lidove noviny," side by side with Charter 77. The paper also reprinted the lists of names of personalities who allegedly signed the Anti-Charter, either willingly, without their knowledge, or through coercion by the communist authorities.

Havel said: "As far as I remember, we never got mad at those who signed the so-called Anti-Charter. To be angry with them would have meant to be mad at Czech history, to be mad at the traditional archetypes of Czech behavior, to be mad at the Czech nation, at Czech society. That's the way things are here. We have always adapted to conditions, and only once the historic conditions ripen does society, and above all its elites, spring to life."

Havel said those who signed the Anti-Charter woke up when the right time arrived -- in November 1989.

"It's hard to imagine our November revolution without their massive participation. I have the impression that it would be absurd to chide them today for having signed something 25 years ago in that oppressive atmosphere and under terrible pressure," Havel said.

Havel denounced the republication of the names of the thousands of signatories of the Anti-Charter now and of the invitations for them to confess on television and in the press.

"It seems to me that if someone should protest against this, it's we chartists," Havel said, to applause from the audience.

Czech sociologist and Charter 77 signatory Jirina Siklova said she fully agrees with Havel: "Today, I have the feeling that this is being revived, and once again these people who were engaged in dissent are being pushed into isolation. That's why I have such respect for what the president said and that he formulated it in the way he did. That means that these people [who signed the Anti-Charter] had similar opinions and wanted to do something similar, but at that time they didn't have enough courage or sufficient opportunity to take this position [of dissent]."

Siklova said the Anti-Charter signatories were in what she termed a "gray zone." She insisted the gray zone was not made up of people who were collaborators with the communist regime. In her words, "Often, they didn't differ in any way in their opinions from the dissidents." They kept their jobs and, as Siklova put it, "They helped the Chartists incredibly."

Siklova accused the Czech news media of devoting excessive attention to the Anti-Charter.

"I consider this [sort of news media coverage] as wrong, as it seems to be the way the Bolsheviks [Czech communists] always behaved -- labeling people. It's not right," Siklova said. "They should have devoted space to a bigger and deeper explanation of the historic context of the Charter, like the way things were done and how [the regime] collected signatures for the Anti-Charter."

The spotlight hit the Anti-Charter earlier in January as the result of a trial in which a leading Czech pop singer, Helena Vondrackova, lost a suit she brought against a journalist, Jan Rejzek, after he alleged that she had signed the Anti-Charter.

Siklova said "Lidove noviny" was correct in having published Charter 77 and the Anti-Charter side by side. But she said the paper -- instead of publishing the names of those who allegedly signed the Anti-Charter -- should have used the space to explain what actually transpired because "it would have helped everyone a lot more."

"Young people know nothing about it. Their own parents don't want to talk with them about it because they themselves may feel bad about it or else they are afraid of questions like, 'Where did you stand, Daddy?' or 'Mommy, what did you do?' I think it would have helped these people," Siklova said. "Certainly they are not eager to talk about it. It's the middle-aged generation, which has always been confronted with the question of which side to stand on. Understandably, the majority remained on the side of conformity."

Documentary film director Kristina Vlachova has made several short films about the Anti-Charter, one of which Czech public television broadcast on 28 January in its "Here and Now" series after the main evening news program. In the short, she interviews two alleged signatories -- the former chairwoman of the Communist Party cell at the National Theater, Jirina Petrovicka, and comedian Jiri Suchy. Both insist they did not knowingly sign the Anti-Charter.

Vlachova, a Charter 77 signatory, was among the invited guests at last night's reception. But she said she does not believe Havel had her or Czech TV in mind when he denounced recent media coverage of the Anti-Charter.

"When I heard Vaclav Havel's words, I was a bit taken aback, and people who were standing around me said, 'But that's not how it was at all.' But I said to myself, 'He's not talking about my piece,' because I'm convinced that my story was good and absolutely correct and decent," Vlachova said. "I don't think he was speaking about 'Here and Now' on Czech TV. He was probably talking about some other TV station."

Vlachova said she is a bit surprised at the timing of Havel's defense of those who allegedly signed the Anti-Charter, including his second wife, Dagmar, nee Veskrnova, an actress who accompanied him to last night's reception.

"It surprised me because at this forum, at a gathering of Chartists, it seemed to me to be quite unsuitable to flatter Anti-Chartists. It really surprised me," Vlachova said. "I personally think that it is the result of [Havel's] marriage to Mrs. Veskrnova, about whom it is not entirely clear whether she signed the Anti-Charter or not. I don't have any other way to interpret it."

Prior to marrying Veskrnova four years ago, Havel is not known to have publicly defended those who signed the Anti-Charter.

Senate spokesman Jaroslav Veis rejected as "nonsense" speculation about the timing of last night's anniversary reception to coincide with the anniversary of the Anti-Charter. Charter 77 was drawn up in late 1976 and was distributed to reporters at the beginning of January 1977.

Veis said it was already known several months ago when planning the event that Havel, who suffers from a recurring respiratory ailment, would be making his annual recuperative pilgrimage to the Canary Islands and that the reception would be held in late January, after his return.

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