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Czech reporter's narrow escape

Friday, the murder plot's alleged ringleader – a former official – was charged with corruption.

By Arie FarnamSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 2002



PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC

The order to kill a journalist came with a packet of Semtex plastic explosives. But when the would-be hit man – a tattooed petty criminal known in the Czech underworld as "the Lemon" – learned that the order had come from a senior government official, he balked and turned himself in to police.

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The foiled murder plot against one of the Czech Republic's top investigative journalists last month is shattering illusions of a quick and easy transition to open democracy here – and causing many Czechs to wonder how far Central and Eastern Europe have come in terms of press freedom.

"Is something like this, in this day and age, possible in the Czech Republic?" a baffled commentator asked on Radio Prague. "That a senior official could order the killing of a journalist? This isn't Belarus, is it?"

The journalist with the price on her head, Sabina Slonkova, an investigative reporter with the Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes, voiced similar disbelief.

"At first, when they [the police] told me someone had admitted to being hired to kill me, I refused to believe it," she said in a brief telephone interview after being given police protection. "Unfortunately, it was not just a bad joke. I will have to think about how to reorganize my life to protect myself."

Ms. Slonkova, who has made a reputation for ferreting out high-level corruption and mercilessly exposing dirty politics, has also made powerful enemies in the top echelons of Czech society and once risked jail time for refusing to reveal confidential sources.

'Mafia capitalism'

Her digging into the shady dealings of officials was a refreshing change from the bland, state-controlled coverage of the country's communist period. After enthusiastically throwing off authoritarian rule 13 years ago, the Czech Republic has prided itself on leading the pack of postcommunist nations, embracing new freedoms and becoming a top European Union candidate. But the latest incident has shaken some of that confidence.

Jiri Pehe, a Prague-based political analyst and adviser to Czech President Vaclav Havel, blames the incident on "the atmosphere of mafia capitalism that has permeated Czech politics for the past 10 years."

After "the Lemon," whose real name is Karel Rziepel, blew the whistle on the murder plot, four other people were implicated in the case through an intercepted mobile phone message. They include alleged ringleader Karel Srba, a former senior Foreign Ministry official who was forced to resign last year after Slonkova documented corrupt deals in which he allegedly siphoned money off from government property. Police found two pistols, about $1 million in cash, and a photo of Slonkova with the word "liquidate" written on it at Mr. Srba's home. On Friday Srba, already in detention, was charged with taking bribes.

Put in broader perspective though, the case may have a positive side. "It is very good news that the deed was not consummated," Mr. Pehe, the analyst, says. "The police were actually able to prevent the crime and have shown real interest in punishing the perpetrators. After all the corruption that has been swept under the carpet in the past, finally here is a case that is being prosecuted and may be used as a springboard to tackle corruption as a whole. In the Ukraine, Belarus or Russia, when journalists are murdered, the cases are not prosecuted at all."

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