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Czech Republic: Deputy Minister Faces Sharp Questions On Roma

RFE/RL and other organizations played host today to an international conference on minority issues in the Czech Republic, and how news organizations report on them. Our correspondent Don Hill reports that the Czech government official present had to field heated questions, particularly about a controversial wall built in a Czech town to segregate the Romany minority.

Prague, 19 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Members of an international audience of about 100 persons grilled Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Palous today about the Czech government's handling of issues related to the Romany minority.

The Roma are an ethnic group sometimes referred to as gypsies, a term many consider offensive.

Palous attended a symposium on Minorities and the Media at the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to give what was billed as the keynote address. Jeff Trimble, director of broadcasting for RFE/RL, one of the symposium sponsors, introduced Palous as a former dissident and long-time champion of human rights.

In the question and answer period after the Czech minister spoke, members of the audience targeted him as a representative of the Social Democratic government of Premier Milos Zeman, which they said was not doing enough to address the problems of the Czech Romany minority.

A reporter for the International Herald Tribune newspaper focused on a wall put up last week in the northern Bohemian town of Usti nad Labem. The wall segregates a Romany neighborhood from a Czech neighborhood across the street. The reporter asked why the government denounced the wall but failed to take action to destroy it or to sanction the town's leaders, who commissioned it.

Deputy Foreign Minister Palous said the government lacks legal authority to act against the Usti nad Labem town council. He said also that the government prefers "negotiation and consensus" to confrontation and force. He said the government has appointed a special representative (Deputy Interior Minister Pavel Zarecky) to resolve the difficulty. Palous said he expects the wall to be removed by mid-November.

Another question came from Miroslav Lacko, a member of the Slovak Commission on the Rights of Romanies and himself a Rom. Lacko asked pointedly what plans the Czech government has made to receive an expected repatriation of Czech Roma who have sought, and been denied, asylum in England. He said they will number from 2,000 to 4,000.

Palous said the government has sent a social worker to England to assist Czech Romany refugees with what he called "their social problems."

The conference on minority issues was sponsored jointly by RFE/RL, the Council for Human Rights in the Czech Republic, and the Council of Europe. The conference agenda observed that the Czech Republic is home to sizable populations of Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and Germans. But most of the symposium's attention went to Roma, the largest Czech minority.

After Palous answered questions, RFE/RL's Trimble told the audience: "The energy and passion of the opening session bodes well for the rest of the day."

In a subsequent panel, several participants criticized the deputy foreign minister's remarks.

Jindrich Sidlo, editor of the Czech magazine Respekt, said this: "Mr. Palous used a term that makes me angry." The term, he said, was "Romany citizen" and is an expression that divides, and sets Roma aside. Roma in the Czech Republic, he said, are Czech citizens.

Panelist David Chirico of London University objected to the keynote speaker's reference to Romany flight from the Czech lands as a Romany exodus.

Lacko told RFE/RL's correspondent that Palous had been asked, in Lacko's words, "concrete questions" but hadn't supplied concrete answers. The Slovak activist said he asked the questions not with any intention to criticize the Czech government, but to gain information that he could apply to the situation in Slovakia.

In addition to finger-pointing, the symposium also drew forth a substantial amount of self-criticism.

Deputy Foreign Minister Palous said this to one questioner: "I fully agree with you that the wall (at Usti nad Labem) should never have been built and there are problems of communication between the local government and the Romany population. The government takes it as a defeat that the wall has been built."

He said at another point that for 10 years there has been what he called "something strange" going on the Czech Republic. Palous rhetorically asked this: "What do we do if we find that Czechs are confirmed racists?"

Respekt editor Sidlo said Czech publications are predominantly "white media that write for white readers." He added this: "That's easy to say, difficult to change."

Karel Holomek, editor of the Bohemian Romano Hangos, (Romany Voice), himself a Rom, said that many Roma are unwilling to submit to ordinary social standards. He said that the incidence of petty crime is higher among Roma. But, he said, the cause is found in underlying social causes. News organizations, he said, select negative events to report in order to exaggerate the portrayal of Roma as a negative community.

Holomek said that Roma tend to perceive, as he put it, "everything in this society as directed against them. He said his fellows should learn to distinguish between racism and xenophobia, on one side, from simple differences of opinion arising from different perspectives on the other."

One Romany advocate attending the conference said privately of the entire gathering that concentrating on the symbolic Usti nad Labem wall was an error. As he put it: "The wall may come down. And this will be declared a great victory. And the Czech government will continue to assign 70 percent of Romany children to special schools, forever shutting off their chances for a university education."