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In 2001, the Czech Republic continued to fulfill requirements for membership in the European Union (EU), which the country expects to join early this decade. The year was also marked by a power struggle between President Vaclav Havel and the government, efforts to identify and prosecute corruption, debates over media independence, a new British immigration policy at Prague's international airport, and the trials of former senior officials in the Communist-era government.
In December 1989, an anti-Communist opposition led by Havel and the Civic Forum brought down the Czechoslovak government. The country held its first post-Communist elections in 1990; adopted a new constitution and a charter of freedoms in 1992; and dissolved the state into the Czech and Slovak Republics in 1993. Havel became president of the new Czech Republic in 1993.
In 1992, under Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus, the country began an aggressive program of political and economic reforms. Klaus, a member of the ruling center-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS), became prime minister the same year. He resigned in 1997 amid allegations of corruption in the ODS and in the midst of an economic recession. In 1998, the ODS ceded control of the government to the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) after close parliamentary elections but negotiated control of key government positions. In 1999 the Czech Republic joined NATO.
When the year 2001 began, a power struggle between President Havel and the CSSD-ODS coalition remained heated. The previous year, the CSSD and the ODS had hoped to limit President Havel's powers through constitutional reform, and Prime Minister Zeman had contested Havel's appointment of a new Czech National Bank head without his approval. Havel, meanwhile, had challenged amendments to the law on political parties that, he argued, would make it difficult for small parties to gain representation in parliament and therefore would violate a constitutional requirement for proportional representation. In February 2001, the court ruled in Havel's favor and struck down parts of the legislation. The government, which is eager to amend the election law before parliamentary elections in 2002, modified and reintroduced the legislation.
During 2001, the government took a variety of steps to address problems of crime and corruption. The interior ministry, for example, launched a public information campaign about the negative consequences of bribery. Authorities also broke up a Czech-based network for human smuggling and charged former senior managers of the Investicni a Postovni Banka (IPB) with loan fraud, insider trading, and mismanagement of property.
Late in 2000, journalists at Czech Television (CT) responded to the appointment of Jiri Hodac to head the state-run broadcaster by taking over the CT newsroom, broadcasting their own programs, and casting the appointment as a politically motivated challenge to media independence. They accused Hodac of maintaining close ties to the center-right Civic Democrats, and thousands of Czechs took to the streets in their support.
Although Hodac initially resisted the protest by firing 20 staffers and blacking out all broadcasts, he resigned in January 2001 under governmental pressure. Nevertheless, the CT strikers refused to stand down until a new interim director fired senior managers who were loyal to Hodac and until parliament passed a law intended to limit political influence over the broadcaster. Both demands were met. Late in the year, Prime Minister Milos Zeman fueled his already contentious relationship with the country's media when his entire government sued the weekly newspaper Respekt and its editor over articles that accused the government of failing to fight corruption. When the prime minister stated publicly that his intention was to ensure the newspaper's demise, the newspaper filed a counter suit.
The government's decision in 2001 to allow Britain to open an immigration office at Prague's international airport set off an intense debate. Britain contends that the move, the intent of which was to prevent abuse of its asylum laws, was not directed at a single group. Critics, however, charged that the policy was aimed at Roma (Gypsies).
In other news, Czech courts took up several cases in 2001 that involve Communist-era government officials. One court postponed until 2002 the trial of former Prime Minister Lubomir Strongal, who has been accused of covering up crimes committed by the secret police in the late 1940s. Another court postponed the trial of former Interior Minister Javomir Obzina and four former secret police officials who have been accused of running a campaign to threaten, interrogate, and ultimately force dissidents to leave the country in the 1970s. Two other high-ranking officials in the Communist-era government were charged with treason in connection with the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion. In December, the Constitutional Court rejected a call from members of the CSSD to abolish the country's lustration laws.
Czech citizens age 18 and older can change their government democratically under a system of universal, equal, and direct suffrage. Voters elect members of the senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Parliament chooses the president, who appoints judges, the prime minister, and other cabinet members.
The Czech Republic has a solid record of free and fair elections. In preparation for parliamentary elections in 2002, the government has struggled to amend the country's election law. As early as May 2000, parliament approved a bill that would introduce a first-past-the-post system for electing members of the Chamber of Deputies, increase the number of election districts from 8 to 35, and raise to five percent the threshold for parties, including ones joined in coalitions, to secure seats. Fearing the creation of a de facto two-party system, however, President Vaclav Havel challenged the law before the Constitutional Court, which ruled in his favor early in 2001. On December 13, 2001, the lower house passed a new amendment to the election law that, among other things, would create 14 election districts and improve voting opportunities for Czech citizens who live abroad. The senate was expected to respond shortly thereafter.
Elections for one-third of the senate and for the country's new regional assemblies took place in November 2000. Both elections were marked by low voter turnout. In the senate election, the Quad Coalition, a grouping of liberal opposition parties, trounced the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS). The coalition now holds 39 seats in the 81-member body. The failure of the CSSD and the ODS to secure a decisive senate majority effectively quashed their plans to limit President Havel's powers through constitutional reform.
The Czech Republic's Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms gives minorities the right to help resolve matters pertaining to their group. A 1999 law restored citizenship to many residents, including Roma. In 2001, parliament approved legislation for the protection of ethnic minority rights. The law's provisions include the creation of a governmental minority council.
Freedom of expression is honored in the Czech Republic, although the Charter prohibits threats against individual rights, state and public security, public health, and morality. Libel can be prosecuted as a criminal offense. The country's print and electronic media are largely in private hands. In 2000, the Law on Free Access to Information took effect and parliament amended broadcasting laws to meet EU standards. In 2001, parliament passed an important bill designed to limit political influence over Czech Television (CT), the state broadcaster. Passage of the legislation helped end a standoff at CT between journalists and management. Under the new law, nongovernmental groups, rather than politicians, will make nominations for membership on Czech television's governing council, the body that controls the selection of Czech television's director.
The government generally respects freedom of religion. However, late in 2001, President Havel vetoed a law on churches that he believes would limit the ability of religious groups to engage in charitable activities. When the Chamber of Deputies overrode the veto in mid-December, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk suggested that the Czech Catholic Church might challenge the law before the Constitutional Court. In November, the prosecutor-general's office dropped charges of "disparaging a nation, race or belief" against Father Vojtech Protivisnky, who had urged his parishioners in the village of Rakvice to vote against the Communist Party in the 2000 parliamentary elections.
Czech citizens may assemble peacefully, form associations, and petition the government. Trade unions and professional associations are free. Judges, prosecutors, and members of the armed forces and police may not strike. In 2001, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions criticized the Czech Republic for restricting the rights of public sector workers to engage in collective bargaining and, in some professions, to strike. It also called on the country to improve its record on discrimination against women, Roma, and people with disabilities.
The Czech Republic's independent judiciary consists of a supreme court, a supreme administrative court, and high, regional, and district courts. There is also a constitutional court. In December 2001, President Havel signed a bill on judicial reform but suggested he might challenge aspects of the law, which he expected to "more widely and consistently separate judicial and executive power."
The Charter specifies "fundamental human rights and freedoms" including privacy, property ownership, sanctity of the home, and choice of residence. It also guarantees the right to education, fair wages, and protection of one's health. Citizens generally enjoy all of these rights, although Roma continue to experience discrimination.