Fill out the brief form below for access to the free report.

Postcard from Prague: Paying Freedom Forward

Article by Amanda Schnetzer December 10, 2011 //   4 minute read

Today, December 10, is Human Rights Day. It’s also the one-year anniversary of jailed Chinese writer and democracy activist Liu Xiaobo’s receipt, in absentia, of the Nobel Peace Prize. To mark these two occasions, the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague, Czech Republic, cosponsored a symposium on “The Epoch-Making Power of Free Speech.” Judges, activists, and scholars from around the world explored the limits of a government’s ability to curb free expression. They also considered the Internet and social media’s bold twenty-first century challenge to authoritarianism. Named for the famous writer, former dissident leader and eventual president of the Czech Republic, the Havel Library embodies the dedication of this former Communist country to support those who still seek freedom from oppression. Across this beautiful city, once invaded by Soviet troops, private and public institutions like the Havel Library, the People in Need Foundation, and the Czech Foreign Ministry are paying it forward by spotlighting human rights abuses and supporting dissidents in Burma, Cuba, Belarus, Russia, and elsewhere. As Carl Gershman, president of the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy put it, “There’s a large group of people in [the Czech Republic] who feel an obligation to help others who are still fighting for freedom.” And they are doing so with powerful effect. Havel’s challenge to the former Communist system also provides insight and education to today’s freedom advocates. Take Charter 77. In 1976, the arrest of members of an underground rock band called Plastic People of the Universe prompted Havel and others to circulate a petition declaring “with new urgency how many fundamental rights for the time being are—unhappily—valid in our country only on paper. Completely illusory, for example, is the right to freedom of expression." More than 200 individuals signed Charter 77 in a campaign designed to evade detection before it was presented to Communist authorities in January 1977. Many, including Havel, were imprisoned for this simple but brave act of civil disobedience. As Communism was collapsing in Czechoslovakia in 1989, China’s Liu Xiaobo was being arrested for his role in the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. In 2009 Liu was convicted and jailed again for helping draft Charter 08, which says: “Together we can work for major changes in Chinese society and for the rapid establishment of a free, democratic, and constitutional country. We can bring to reality the goals and ideals that our people have incessantly been seeking for more than a hundred years, and can bring a brilliant new chapter to Chinese civilization.” More than 2,000 Chinese signed Charter 08 before it was publicly released on December 10, 2008. Liu’s Charter 08 was a clear nod to Havel’s Charter 77—and a powerful reminder that freedom is universal. It is very fitting then that tonight in Prague, as the graying rockers of Plastic People of the Universe closed the symposium with four of their avant-garde tunes, that a plain wooden chair stood empty beside them, save for a placard reading “Free Liu Xiaobo.”