The authorities in Prague 7 have fined an artist over a series of works combining the Czech national flag with that of the Romany people. He says the flags, which appeared on an embankment in the city last summer, were meant to foster debate on tensions between the two communities. However, the local town hall accuses him of defaming a Czech national symbol.
Last July, Slovak artist Tomáš Rafa put up seven variations on the Czech national flag at Prague’s Artwall Gallery, an open-air exhibition space at a busy embankment. The designs combined the Czech flag with the banner of the Romany people; some featured the Romany spoked wheel, while in others, the Czech flag’s white stripe was replaced by green.
The exhibition entitled “Tender for a Czech-Romany Flag” was the author’s contribution to the debate on the strained co-existence of Czechs and Romanies at a time when ethnic tensions were high in several parts of the country.
The outdoor show provoked some strong reactions. It also earned Tomáš Rafa a criminal complaint by a former member of the far-right Workers’ Party of Social Justice who argued he had defamed the national flag; that is an offence under Czech law which carries a maximum penalty of 10,000 crowns.
The police eventually handed the case over to the local officials in Prague 7 where the Artwall Gallery is based. They decided the law had been breached, and fined the author. The amount of the fine has not been disclosed but the municipality spokesman Martin Vokuš said it was the minimum allowed by law. Mr Vokuš also says the officials had little choice.
“We received the case from the police last September. The police also gave us an expert opinion which said that three of the flags on display did constitute a breach of the law governing the usage of the national symbols of the Czech Republic. Our officials can’t take into consideration whether this was a piece of art, or any other aspects such as the author’s intention. Our role was to say whether it broke the law or not.”
Tomáš Rafa, meanwhile, says he was surprised when his work became the subject of a police investigation. He thinks he breached no law by designing the flags, and believes his project proved useful.
“In light of recent developments, both in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, I can see that the project uncovered something that has been muted in society. There is a certain tension caused by a lack of dialogue. And I think that projects like the Czech-Romany flag open the way for dialogue.”
Rafa has appealed against the fine, which means the local authorities in Prague 7 will have to review the case. For their part, Romany activists point out that sports fans have never been punished for modifying the Czech flag with the names of their home towns.