Small town hairdresser wins over town hall

30-05-2001

That plot of land lies near the East Moravian town of Hranice, in a place where Philips decided to build a factory producing television screens. The project has been broadly welcomed, because the area has a high unemployment rate and the Philips factory will create 3,500 new jobs. The town hall promised that it would buy the site for the factory from the numerous small owners and prepare it for the building work. But in trying to hasten that process, for reasons nobody seems able to explain, it offered individual land owners various prices. Among those who were to receive the smallest sum per square meter was Marketa Regecova and while all the others sold out without any protests, she refused to agree with the lower price and did not hesitate to go to court. Meanwhile Philips started construction work on the factory, which increased the value of the plot in the middle of the site. Ms Regecova made the best of the situation and increased the price she was asking for her piece of land. And that's where her fame started. She was widely criticized for being selfish, for disregarding public interest and the needs of the whole area. Now, that's an argument very deeply rooted in Czech mentality after all those years of communism, where we were repeatedly told that the individual's rights had to give way to the needs of society. Anonymous letters, threats and accusations kept pouring down on the Hranice hairdresser from all parts of the country. Even Prime Minister Zeman publicly criticized her stand. But Marketa Regecova stood her ground - and won. Philips is buying her piece of land directly, for the unprecedented price she is demanding, and will ask the town hall to reimburse it. The result has not made Miss Regecova any more popular in the eyes of the public. But are we witnessing something rare and new in this country - the victory of the individual's rights against the perceived public interest? I asked Erazim Kohak, professor of philosophy at Prague's Charles University, how he sees it. Erazim KohakErazim Kohak "I don't believe the case was public against private interest. It was the private interest of one person against the private interest of another person, the person who owned the land against the people who wanted to build a factory. Let's not confuse this for public interest." But all those jobs in a region where there is a high unemployment rate? "This is the argument which is always used, whenever private enterprise wants to ride a rough shot over individual citizens. They always appeal to public interest. And I believe that the only one who can claim public interest are people, who were duly elected by the people to represent them, not a private corporation. The unemployment situation needs to be solved in such a way as not to override the rights of citizens." So that Ms Regecova was right in standing up for her rights? "I can't judge the individual case of Ms Regecova, but it seems to me that whenever there is blatant discrimination among people who are being asked to sell their land to a corporation, then it is necessary to stand up and protest against it." We haven't had many such cases in this country. We're not very used to standing up for that sort of rights. "No, we're not and it seems to me that it's high time to learn and the dangerous thing is that right now it is easier to stand up to public authority than it is to the immense might of large corporations." In your eyes, is the fact that Ms Regecova has won the case a precedent? "I would like it to be such. Whether it will be, I don't know."

30-05-2001