Last May a Czech photographer and graphic artist created a fake website called 'rent-a-baby.cz', to help draw attention to the high numbers of Czech children languishing in children's homes or orphanages. The website appeared at an exhibition called 'family happiness' that was supported by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. So imagine Jana's surprise when she was told eight months later that the same ministry had filed criminal charges against her...for trafficking in children.
At first glance it looks convincing - click on a list of babies and children, choose the one you want to rent for a few days, drop it in your shopping cart and head to the online check out. But www.rent-a-baby.cz is, of course, fake. It was created for a government-sponsored art exhibition last year on childcare in the Czech Republic that was opened by then minister of Labour and Social Affairs Petr Nečas. Its author, photographer Jana Štěpánová, gave me a tour.
“OK, the website works as a quite realistic e-shop. There are children listed on the website, each specified with how old they are and why they’re in a children’s home. You can choose – there’s a little picture of the child – and you can actually choose the child as you like, and you may put it into a basket. And you can reserve it.”
But these are fictional children, and this is a fictional service, and is that quite clear from the website?
“This is absolutely clear. If you go to the menu, there is an explanation of what this website is, why we did it, information about me and other people who co-operated.”
The website, says Jana Štěpánová, was created to draw attention to the fact that the Czech Republic sends a higher proportion of babies and young children to children’s homes and orphanages than any other country in the European Union. She also wanted to highlight the many obstacles to adoption in this country, condemning such children to a life in an institution. Since it was unveiled at the exhibition last May it’s produced both positive and negative reactions.
But in January, things took a rather Kafkaesque turn. The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs formally requested that police file charges against Jana Štěpánová for – among other things – trafficking in children. Jana says she was dumbfounded when she heard the news.
“Trafficking in children was really ridiculous. It was totally ridiculous, because it’s written on the website itself that it’s fiction. I have no children to offer. These children are non-existent. It must have been clear to all the people who were interested.”
The website, it seems, was too realistic for Czech officials, who confused an artwork with real life. But the most ironic thing of all, she says, is that it was the Labour and Social Affairs Ministry who helped organise the exhibition in the first place. Police have since announced that they will not be taking the matter any further; there is clearly no case to answer. As for Jana Štěpánová – she believes the ministry should now make a full apology.