In this new series of articles, EST ambassadors of Visegrád countries will focus a certain issue in their country. This article concentrates on refugees in the Czech Republic and will focus on two different aspects: the political one and media coverage.

When looking at the Visegrád group two members, Poland and Hungary, stood out for the hard stance they took with regard to the refugee crisis. However, lurking in the shadows of the more notorious Visegrád countries, the Czech Republic had a very similar stance on the issue. Czechia clearly stated its refusal of the European refugee relocation scheme and was consequently sued by the European Commission. TIll today only 12 out of the 2,600 designated refugees were accepted in the Czech Republic (European Commission, 2018). Despite this insignificant actual influx of refugees, migration as an issue played a major role in both the parliamentary and more recently the presidential elections. Public opinion has become dominantly hostile towards refugees since 2015 with sixty percent of the population against taking in refugees from countries torn apart by war and nearly two thirds of the population who consider refugees a threat to the Czech Republic (Prague Daily Monitor, 2017). This article will dig deeper into the issue by focussing on two different aspects: the political one and media coverage.

 

Politics of the refugee crisis

When looking at Czech politics in relation to the refugee crisis both the role of political parties and of the president should be discussed. Each of them play an important role in shaping the debate about refugees since, given the presence of just 12 refugees in the country, there is very little interpersonal contact between Czech citizens and refugees, possibly one of the most important ways to increase intercultural understanding (Dražanová, 2018). Because these interpersonal contacts do not exist in the Czech Republic citizens are dependent on the political debate and the media to form their opinion.

Political parties in the Czech Republic were and still are united in their refusal of refugees and immigration. Of the top six parties recently elected in the national parliament only one, the Czech pirate party, officially declared a pro migrant position (Hinshaw & Heijmans, 2017). The other five parties range from utterly against any form of migration, the position of the Freedom and Direct Democracy Party, to against the forced refugee relocation scheme as in the case of the Czech Social Democratic Party. Since almost every major party in the Czech Republic is opposed to refugees it should not come as a surprise that the cues taken from the political debate depict the refugee crisis in a genuine negative way.

Although the president has only a ceremonial role, the office traditionally has a strong role in influencing the public debate. The recent presidential elections pitched a more pro-European candidate, Drahoš, against the incumbent president Zeman. The latter has noticeably mingled in the debate about refugees with statements such as the ones that compared the influx of refugees to an organized invasion (Kahn, 2015) and to a tsunami that will kill him (Allegretti, 2015) also saying that refugees will apply sharia law and will therefore stone unfaithful women to death (Prague Post, 2015). These declarations led the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein to state that Zeman was contributing to “an increasingly xenophobic public discourse” in the Czech Republic (Nielsen, 2015).

Despite the fact that there are more Jedi Knights, 15,000 according to a 2011 census (Lincoln, 2011), than Muslims, around 11,000, Muslim refugees were a major theme in the elections. Even though both candidates were opposed to the relocation of refugees, migration became the issue on which Drahoš was frequently attacked by Zeman supporters. For Drahoš calling for tougher border controls and to defend the culture of the Czech Republic, was not enough. Newspaper and billboards advertisements, paid by a group called ‘Friends of Miloš Zeman’, tied Drahoš to the issue of immigration by stating “Stop immigrants and Drahoš! This country is ours.” (Tait, 2018). Eventually, Zeman won the elections and is bound to be the countries president for another five years.
These examples showcase that the public discourse around Muslim refugees is extremely critical. Parties from both the right and left side of the political spectrum are opposed to immigration, the current president is not afraid to make bolt statements about it and the presidential elections were centred around this theme.

 

The role of the media

Politicians are not the only ones able to influence public opinion. Media, both written and online, have a strong role in portraying events and creating the public discourse. Overall, the Czech media didn’t take a very different path than the politicians of the country on the topic of migration. Research by the European Journalist Observatory in fact found that overall “newspapers in Western Europe were generally more compassionate towards the plight of migrants and refugees, compared to Eastern European and Baltic countries which remained generally negative, unemotional and anti-EU” (European Journalism Observatory, 2016). An example of this is the decision by Czech newspapers not to publish the picture of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian who drowned in the Mediterranean sea. Whereas the story ignited a wave of articles all around Europe that showed the humanitarian side of the crisis, the story of Kurdi received no attention in the Czech Republic. These findings are supported by a noteworthy incident about the Czech private television station Prima. On 7 September 2015 a meeting took place between the management and the news team of the channel. Before this date Prima had presented the refugee crisis from different angles. However, in the meeting the management announced that journalists should from now on exclusively portray the refugees as a threat. A recording of this meeting was later released by Hlidaci Pes, a Czech website (The Economist, 2016). This incident showcases how the management of a big Czech TV station tried to manipulate public opinion by going against all journalists and ethical codes. It’s also worth noting that fifty percent of the shares of Prima are owned by Ivan Zach, a businessman who is considered close to president Zeman (The Economist, 2016).

It should not come as a surprise that since 2015 the Czech population has become more and more negative about refugees. Due to spare contact moments with actual refugees, public opinion in the Central-European country is mainly shaped by both politicians and the media. The former were united in their refusal of refugees. With five out of the six biggest parties against refugees, the debate was focussed on who has been the most critical towards immigration. This was also true for the recent presidential elections in which immigration was also a major theme. Although it remains a question of chicken-and-egg the media followed this pattern. Compared to Western European media the overall tone of media coverage was fairly negative. Overall, it seems like the reality, taking in 12 refugees out of the designated 2600, has become separated from the political reality in which a very negative image of refugees and the impact of migration was created.


Date Pijlman is the 2017-18 EST Ambassador to Czech Republic.

References