World media takes note of Zeman profanities scandal

Miloš Zeman, photo: Filip Jandourek

The scandal surrounding obscene language used by the Czech President Miloš Zeman during a live Czech Radio interview last Sunday has raised eyebrows not just in the Czech Republic, but also around the world.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“Ostuda” – that is the Czech word for shame and embarrassment. And it is one that is often heard from ordinary Czechs when describing the actions of their politicians. The latest such incident involves foul language used by President Zeman to describe the Russian anti-Putin music group Pussy Riot. His profanity-laced description led to hundreds of complaints received by the country’s broadcasting standards watchdog. His words have also led to outcries from politicians, calls for resignation from activists, satirical music videos sampling Zeman’s words appearing on YouTube, and yet more negative press for the country in the eyes of the world.

“Czech president shocks nation in expletive-filled interview” was the headline of a story in the UK’s Daily Telegraph, while a UK Daily Mail story quoted an angry PM Bohuslav Sobotka noting that: “The president should not speak in such a way as it damages the reputation of the presidency, sets a bad example and does nothing for our reputation abroad.”

Germany’s Die Welt described the scandal as a “bombshell”, while The Washington Post headlined its story: “The expletive-filled presidential interview that has all of the Czech Republic embarrassed”– adding that: “His gaffes have made headlines in the past. During a recent visit to China, he said Taiwan was part of China, a statement that stands in stark contrast to the official stances of many European countries.”

I asked Erik Best for his take on a theory expressed in some circles that Zeman’s profanities were a calculated attempt to change the subject.

“There certainly is a theory that his use of profanities was designed to divert attention from some of the comments he made in China and also some of the comments he made during the presentation of awards during the state [statehood] holiday…but I don’t think that really works if that was indeed the attempt…What it more did was to affirm that the president is a bit out of control and it has started a debate about whether the Czech constitution should be stricter with regards to the power of the president.”

Erik Best,  photo: Petra Čechová
Meanwhile, Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald wrote of the president becoming a national “embarrassment” adding that “Mr Zeman is also known for his enjoyment of alcohol. Early into his presidency, he was accused of being drunk at an official ceremony at St. Vitus’ Cathedral at Prague Castle. His office denied the allegations and said the president had been suffering from the flu.”

The latest twist is the suggestion carried via in an interview with the Czech tabloid Blesk that Zeman’s profanities regarding Pussy Riot were thought out in advance rather than a slip of the tongue. Erik Best explained the reasoning put forth by the castle that Zeman was merely trying to expose the hypocrisy of his critics:

“He was reacting to criticism from those who say that it is a bit of a joke that the Czech president, who is so pro-Russian and pro-Chinese, to be giving state medals to those who were against totalitarian regimes. And he is in a bit of a difficult position because he has come to be seen as a lobbyist for financial groups who want to do business in Russia and China. And from my standpoint, much worse that his profanities was his willingness to sell out Taiwan by taking an aggressive stand saying that he is in favour of the quick unification with the mainland which goes much further than other European leaders have gone before.”