Culture on trial in Prague

THE first major dissident trial to take place in Czechoslovakia in eight years - the trial of seven leaders of the Jazz Section - will open in Prague next Tuesday. The fact that these proceedings were begun at this time underlines the Czechoslovak government's defiant resistance to reform efforts in the Soviet Union. Just as the Czechoslovak authorities feared that the Solidarity movement in Poland would contaminate their soil, they now seem to fear that Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost might take root. It is glasnost from the East combined with pressure from the West that may prove to be the Jazz Section's only hope. The case of the Jazz Section leaders has received considerable international attention since their arrest on Sept. 2. And deservedly so. The Jazz Section has carried out one of the most innovative and successful efforts at spreading independent culture in Eastern Europe. Through a broad spectrum of activities, of which jazz is just one part, the Jazz Section provided opportunities for amateur musicians, experimental artists, and thousands of Czechoslovak citizens to explore and keep themselves informed about developments in the world of culture, unhindered by official restrictions. The Prague Jazz Days (annual jazz and rock festivals from 1974 to '79), the Jazz Section Bulletin, art exhibits, and book series injected bursts of energy into an otherwise conformist cultural scene.

The group's success was its downfall. With some 7,000 members and an estimated following of up to 100,000, it became a force that could not be ignored. Its fight for survival began in the late 1970s and is not likely to end with the March trial, whatever the outcome.

The leaders of the Jazz Section are being charged with ``unauthorized business enterprise'' and face up to eight years of imprisonment. The case is complicated by the fact that the Jazz Section was formed legally as part of the Union of Musicians, a situation that the authorities tried to undo in 1984 by banning the activities of the entire Union of Musicians, just to get at the Jazz Section.

In another part of Czechoslovakia, in Brno, a different scenario is being acted out between the government and a young man named Petr Pospichal. Pospichal's ``crime'' involves his human rights monitoring and independent publishing activities and, perhaps most damning, contacts with Polish Solidarity and Czechoslovak 'emigr'es abroad. The Czechoslovak government has long had a profound fear of any increased communication among East European opposition activists. In addition, Mr. Pospichal is a member of the Jazz Section. For these activities, Pospichal faces up to 10 years in prison. His prosecution has been pursued with unusual speed and vigor, indications that the government is seeking to avert international attention to the case.

It is too soon to predict whether Gorbachev's glasnost or any other campaign of reforms will prove strong enough to affect the hard-line forces within the Czechoslovak government who refuse to relinquish any control over cultural policies and access to information. But expressions of international concern about these cases become all the more important at this time.

People in the West concerned with human rights and cultural freedom should speak out about these courageous individuals and draw attention to their plight. The Jazz Section trial affects far more than a small group of persecuted musicians. In their own words, jazz is ``a symbol of creativity, humanity, and tolerance'' and ``a way to mutual understanding both between people and nations....'' At this critical juncture, the East and West have a unique opportunity to support Jazz Section members and the efforts for creative change they represent.

Janet S. Fleischman is the program coordinator of Helsinki Watch, a nongovernmental human rights organization that monitors compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords.

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