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Freedom of expression or freedom from insult?
10.2.2006 - Slawek Szefs

Central Europe is caught up in the debate over press freedom and religious sensitivities after papers in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria and Poland re-printed caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. The caricatures were first printed in a Danish newspaper sparking protests around the world. In Poland the debate has led to questioning of the extent of media freedoms and there's been an apology by Polish authorities to the Arab world.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK
Under the title "Freedom of expression is not a provocation", Rzeczpospolita - considered one of the most serious and opinion forming Polish newspapers - carried a reprint of the controversial pictures published earlier by some Danish and Norwegian dailies. Grzegorz Gauden, Rzeczpospolita's editor, stated the reprint had been a form of protest against aggressive reactions from radical Islamic groups to the original publications.

"Threats of bomb attacks and rewards for assassinating the cartoon authors are impermissible. That is the opinion of numerous European media. Our newspaper wanted to solidarize with this stand. I took this decision with considerable stress."

But, when there is an evident clash of freedom of the press with freedom of religious expression, should the media exercise their right regardless of the potential consequences the action may bring about? Andrzej Krajewski, former head of the Center for Monitoring Press Freedoms in Warsaw says he has doubts on the decision.

"The Polish media were not in a situation under pressure whether it was necessary to say yes or no in a very concrete situation. And the explanation that this is a manifestation of solidarity with the western colleagues is not convincing enough for me. The position of the International Federation of Journalists is that it's up to you to decide whether in local conditions you think it's necessary to publish, or reprint rather, the caricatures or not. They themselves represent, somehow, the world of journalism. They are not completely sure."

According to foreign minister Stefan Meller the incident had been very unfortunate. The Polish head of diplomacy acknowledged the right to free expression, but admitted to abusing religious feelings of the Muslim community.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK
"I would like to ask all the ambassadors of Arab countries accredited in Warsaw to relay to their respective societies that bearing in mind Poland's traditionally friendly disposition towards them, the situation is a misunderstanding created by a reprint of material contained in other European press."

One day later, following the example of foreign minister Meller, Gauden apologized to all those, whose religious feelings his paper had offended assuring it carried no such intentions.

Robert Strybel, a Western media correspondent based in Warsaw, believes that in the end run it is common sense that should define the limits of press freedom.

"The question is - do we have a freedom to harm others, because offending someone's religious sensibilities is creating harm to that person. So there's a toss up between these two things - the pursuit of money and scandals which always increase circulation and TV ratings. People have been blinded by all other considerations. And so, I think, a little bit of restraint is called for in this case."

Can the publication of the controversial caricatures undermine Poland's positive image in Islamic countries? Poland has been perceived in the Arab world as friendly and unbiased, often acting as a mediator representing Western interests, even those of the U.S. and Israel. Professor Janusz Danecki from Warsaw University has been on the spot in the Lebanese capital.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK
"I'm observing it here from Beirut and the place where the worse incidents took place. And the people understand that the whole incidents were only a repercussion of what's been happening in west European press. And the reaction of the Polish government was repeated and broadcasted. Therefore, our image wasn't very much changed in the eyes of the public here."

Professor Danecki added that no anti-Polish manifestations had been noted either in Lebanon, nor reported from other Arab countries.

Poland's Muslim Religious Union representing over 30 thousand faithful has announced it would be taking the Rzeczpospolita paper to court for the reprint of the controversial caricatures of Prophet Mohammed deeming the editor's apology insufficient and not sincere.

Belgian coastal town bans Czech sculpture of Saddam Hussein
10.2.2006 - Dita Asiedu

The massive protests against the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed have rocked the world. Buildings have been burnt down; people have died at demonstrations. To avoid further offence to the Muslim community, the mayor of a little Belgian coastal town recently banned a local exhibition from displaying a sculpture of Saddam Hussein, made by the Czech artist David Cerny.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK
The Czech Republic's David Cerny is one of the country's most original but also most provocative visual artists. His work includes the giant black babies that crawl up Prague's Zizkov TV tower and the famous Pink Tank - the Soviet tank, a memorial to the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, which David Cerny painted pink overnight.

But this time, it is David Cerny's sculpture called "Shark", which caught the attention of the citizens of the Belgian town of Middelkerke. It features a life-size Saddam Hussein in underpants with his hands tied behind his back, floating in a large glass tank filled with the embalming fluid formaldehyde. The sculpture was supposed to be exhibited on one of the town squares as part of this April's Beaufort 2006 Modern Arts Festival.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK
Last month, the mayor of Middelkerke banned the exhibit, saying it's far too provocative. After the Danish cartoons sparked off protests around the world, his decision was not up for discussion. The exhibition organisers argue that the town of Middelkerke has a population of 17,000 with a virtually non-existent Muslim community. But mayor, Michel Landuyt, tells Radio Prague there are several more reasons why the sculpture is inappropriate:

"Families with children pass by the square that it was to stand on and some of them may not have taken it too well. The other thing that bothers me is that the exhibit portrays an almost deformed human being, a real person, who is still alive. He is in trial but should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. And lastly, I don't want to provoke people... or a certain group of people."

David Cerny decided to make the sculpture of Saddam Hussein after he witnessed the aftermath of the Iraqi dictator's reign during a week-long stay in Baghdad. While he points out that there are many other more shocking sculptures on show around the world, he does not object to Mayor Landuyt's decision.

"I don't think that a wave of censorship has hit us but what is worrying is that it is now affecting the everyday lives of the ordinary citizens of this continent."

David Cerny drew inspiration from British artist Damien Hirst, whose tiger shark in a tank was awarded the prestigious Turner prize in 1991. Following the banning in Middelkerke, the Czech artist's sculpture will most likely be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in the nearby city of Oostende - a place that even Mayor Landuyt agrees is more suitable for controversial art.

Slovakia decides on an early election
10.2.2006 - Kerry Skyring, Martina Grenova

Slovakia is heading for elections 3 months ahead of schedule after a junior coalition party pulled out and the minority government of Mikulas Dzurinda came close to collapse. Mr Dzurinda asked Parliament for early elections and all parties agreed on June 17th. The centre right government is credited with economic reforms creating strong economic growth but which were not always popular with Slovaks.

Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, photo: CTKPrime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, photo: CTK
Martina Grenova of Radio Slovakia International told us what triggered the early elections:

"The core of the crisis is the Vatican Treaty, especially that on what is called the treaty on conscientious objection. Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda and the Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, who refused to sign a treaty between Slovakia and the Vatican, say they have a problem with some parts of the treaty. That is why the Christian Democrats pulled out of the governing coalition."

Slovaks go to the polls on June 17. What's the trend? Opinion polls appear to be showing a swing to the left in Slovakia.

"This has been a trend for quite a long time, for about the past two years because of the reforms that the government adopted. They did not meet much public support and this government will be remembered for the changes in the health system and social benefits systems, which both greatly affect the social situation of the citizens. This has been reflected in opinion polls for several years now. Being in the opposition, it is natural that the so-called leftist parties oppose these steps, saying that they are harming the citizens. The Smer Party, for example, which says it is a social democratic party, tops the opinion polls in Slovakia."

Slovakia has certainly had a reputation of an economic miracle in recent years and it has been the Dzurinda government, which has led that. If there is a change of government in June, should foreign investors be worried?

"Even the leftist parties in Slovakia realize that reforms and the economic path that the current government took have made Slovakia renowned among foreign investors and shouldn't be interrupted. The inflow of foreign investment is important and it seems that although the declared statement by the opposition parties is quite critical, they are not as critical to foreign investment."

Budapest third most popular destination for luxury weekend getaways
10.2.2006 - Sándor Laczkó

Fancy a weekend getaway in a five-star hotel? Most of us do from time to time and of those who can afford it a surprising number spend that indulgent weekend in Budapest. A survey by a worldwide reservation system ranks Budapest the third most popular destination in the world for luxury weekend getaways.

Radio Budapest just had to find out why, so he spoke to Adrian Gray director of Le Meridien Hotel in the Hungarian capital:

"Budapest today has this big increase in low-cost airlines and the attitude of people today is that more and more go on the internet to buy their flight accommodation. Whether it be with a low-cost airline, or with Malev or British Airways, the attitude is to get away very quickly. We can book on the internet and they can book on hotel reservation systems or through other third party websites. Budapest today is one of the growing destinations."

What are the attractive features of Budapest? Why is it the third most favourite destination?

"First of all it's very close to the UK - approximately two hours away in flying time. And this makes it an ideal weekend break destination. People believe that it is a new destination that is very fashionable just now. It is a very safe destination and it is affordable. So, people who traditionally did not go away for the weekends have the ability now. People who find themselves with time at the last minute can book last-minute accommodation. The booking pattern nowadays is certainly much more short-lead and this is indicative of people who are professionals, find themselves with spare time available at the last minute, and then make their decisions to go away."

You've mentioned that Britain and France are relatively close to Budapest. Does this mean that most of those who make reservations are from France and the UK?

"Well, certainly the markets that have the biggest growth are France and the UK. In the UK, it is because of the strength of the British pound and the availability of flights into Budapest, while in France you have the RTT, which is the reduced work time - a 35 hour working week - which means that many people are able to accumulate time now and go away for long weekends, especially professionals and these are the people who are booking these flights and coming away for a weekend break."

Some analysts say that whatever people can save on travel, they will spend at the destination. Could that be an explanation why people can afford five-star hotels, while booking low-cost airlines?

"I think you have a situation where people have to have money in order to be able to travel. The low-cost airlines are encouraging people, who would not normally travel, but perhaps have the means, to actually think about going away on a weekend. Once they are actually here, they can find very good quality hotels, 5-star hotels, at very affordable prices. If you take the cost of a 5-star hotel here, whether it be ourselves or the Four Seasons, you can get accommodation now for around 200 euros, including breakfast. This is approximately 130 British pounds, which for a UK person is quite affordable. Obviously, people who are travelling out of Europe do not benefit from the exchange rate. But someone coming out of the UK can make this cost comparison quite easily."

An unusual recital of poetry on Preseren day
10.2.2006 - Michael Manske

February 8th is a national holiday in Slovenia, honoring the great national poet France Preseren. During the holiday, museums and cultural institutions traditionally offer free admittance. Cultural awards are also conferred on outstanding Slovenian artists.

The British writer John Ardagh once remarked that, to Slovenes, Preseren is like "Shakespeare, Burns, Bolivar, Dante and Joan-of-Arc rolled into one." Indeed, no other Slovene enjoys such reverence as the Romantic poet, who died in 1849. (Unlike many other holidays, Preseren Day is celebrated on the day of the poet's death instead of his birthday.)

The devotion to Preseren is unmatched outside of the country. Indeed, popular bookseller only lists two English-language books of Preseren's poetry - both are out of print.

This week, though, a group of foreigners gathered at the birthplace of Preseren, in the small village of Vrba in the region of Upper Carniola, to read his poetry in a variety of languages. No doubt the poet himself would have been pleased to see his works recited in a wide variety of languages.

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