Freedom in the World
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The year 2002 in the Czech Republic was one of firsts and milestones. During the year, the Czech Republic formerly accepted an invitation to join the European Union by 2004 and hosted the NATO summit in Prague, a first for any former Warsaw Pact nation. In addition, Czech voters returned a ruling party to power for the first time in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe. However, the year also witnessed an assassination attempt on an investigative journalist and a high-level corruption scandal.
In December 1989, Vaclav Havel and the Civic Forum led anti-Communist opposition forces to topple 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 peacefully dissolved Czechoslovakia into separate Czech and Slovak Republics in 1993. Havel became president of the new Czech Republic at its creation in 1993. The Czech Republic became a member of NATO in 1999.
In 1993, Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) embarked upon an aggressive program of political and economic reform. However, in 1997, growing economic stagnation and a severe currency crisis undermined public confidence in reforms. The Klaus government resigned later that year amid a campaign finance scandal and a deepening recession. Soon after, the center-right ODS brokered a power-sharing agreement with the center-left Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD). The two parties led a minority government following elections in 1998. Voters in the Czech Republic went to the polls in June to elect members to the 200seat Chamber of Deputies. The ruling CSSD won 30.2 percent of the total votes and 70 corresponding mandates. Vaclav Klaus's ODS party gained only 24.5 percent of the vote (58 mandates). The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) followed in third place with 18.5 percent (41 mandates). The remnants of the once-popular "Four Party Coalition," now consisting of only the Christian Democrats and the Freedom Union-Democratic Union ("the Coalition"), finished last with 14.3 percent of the vote (31 mandates). No other political formations surmounted the 5 percent threshold. The CSSD formed a majority government in partnership with the Coalition following the election, and CSSD chairman Vlad Spidla became the new prime minister.
Despite a variety of governmental efforts to address problems of crime and corruption in the previous year, a 2002 Interior Ministry report stated that such anticorruption efforts have been ineffective. Bribery and fraud are present in nearly every level of state administration. The close connection between crime and corruption surfaced in July when Karel Srba, a former Foreign Ministry secretary-general, allegedly contracted individuals to murder Sabina Slonkova, a high-profile investigative journalist. Police moved quickly to arrest Srba and three others before any could harm Slonkova. The Srba affair uncovered allegations of high-level corruption and spawned wider investigations into the Foreign Ministry, the Health Ministry, and the Military Intelligence Service. These investigations prompted the resignation or dismissal of the chief of military intelligence, the Czech ambassador to Kazakhstan, and the Czech defense attache to India. While some analysts suggest that the case highlights the environment of "mafia capitalism" which has underscored Czech politics since the transition, the Srba affair also demonstrates the Czech government's intention to confront corruption and the willingness of law enforcement to keep journalists free from physical harm.
Nevertheless, Czech journalists must still contend with the threat of politically motivated libel suits. In 2001, then Prime Minister Milos Zeman threatened to sue the weekly newspaper Respekt over allegations that his government had failed to fight corruption. When Prime Minister Zeman publicly stated his intention to ensure the newspaper's demise, Respekt editor Petr Holub promptly filed a counter-suit. In Spring 2002, an appeals court ordered Respekt to apologize for statements it printed regarding Miroslav Slouf, a chief adviser to Prime Minister Zeman. Some observers note that such events demonstrate just how uncomfortable Czech politicians are becoming over the increasingly assertive media culture in the country.
The European Commission's 2002 report on the Czech Republic's accession progress applauded some recent steps the government has taken to protect the rights of ethnic minorities. Simultaneously, the commission noted that the ethnic Roma (Gypsy) population continues to suffer from widespread discrimination. Previous efforts to address this issue have not had a fundamental impact on the plight of the Roma. Human Rights Watch identified the Roma situation as the Czech Republic's "most disturbing human rights problem." However, newly elected Prime Minister Spidla's public statements hint that he may depart from the Zeman government's confrontational approach toward ethnic relations.
Czech citizens 18 and older can change their government democratically under a system of universal, equal, and direct suffrage. The Czech Republic has a solid record of free and fair elections. Voters elect members of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. At the end of 2002, parliament had prepared a constitutional amendment to allow for the country's first direct presidential elections. The president serves as the head of state and appoints judges, the prime minister, and other cabinet members.
The Czech Republic's Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms gives minorities the right to help resolve matters pertaining to their group. The government-sponsored Council for Roma Affairs administers projects to support the Roma community and works to better integrate the Romany minority into mainstream Czech society. Ethnic Roma must still contend with widespread discrimination and racially motivated assaults.
The Czech Republic generally honors freedom of expression, although the charter prohibits threats against individual rights, state and public security, public health, and morality. In 2001, parliament passed a bill designed to limit political influence over Czech Television, the state broadcaster. Under the new law, nongovernmental groups, rather than politicians, will make nominations for membership on Czech television's governing council. A similar law in 2002 applies the same system to Czech Radio.
The government generally respects freedom of religion. However, in 2001, parliament enacted a new religious law over President Vaclav Havel's veto. The law makes it difficult for smaller religious groups to gain official registration status. The law imposes a two-tiered registration system on religious groups. While all religions are free to worship in their own manner, only fully registered groups such as the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant denominations may own community property and receive state aid for clergy salaries, schools, and church maintenance.
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.
The Czech Republic's independent judiciary consists of the Supreme Court, a constitutional court, and a supreme administrative court, as well as high, regional, and district courts. The Czech judicial system operates under chronic funding and staff shortages. This leaves the system vulnerable to political and outside influences. Some reports indicate that the courts have been slow to handle cases against former Communist officials.
The charter specifies "fundamental human rights and freedoms," including privacy, property ownership, the 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.