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.
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.
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."
Indeed, if this were the former USSR, where critical journalists often disappear or turn up dead, Slonkova's case would not be exceptional. While Eastern Europe generally became more open to critical journalists in the 1990s, the situation has deteriorated during the past three years in the former Soviet states of Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine.
The Kremlin has imposed strict censorship on reporting in war-torn Chechnya, orchestrated legal cases against critical news sources, and granted sweeping powers to the security services to crack down on journalists. Dozens of journalists have been murdered or have disappeared under suspicious circumstances, placing the former Soviet Union back at the top of the list of dangerous places to practice the profession.
In the Ukraine, President Leonid Kuchma has ramped up censorship of nongovernmental newspapers. In 2000, the abduction and murder of one of Ukraine's pioneers in independent journalism, Georgy Gondagze, in a plot allegedly spearheaded by Mr. Kuchma, brought international attention to the plight of Ukrainian journalists but that did not stop several more politically motivated murders and numerous threats against journalists last year.
"There has been some progress since Soviet times," says Yuri Padyak, a publisher in Ukrainian Uzhgorod. "Before, there was no free press, period. Now independent press does exist but you can be killed for writing the wrong thing."
The Czech Republic is a far cry from Ukraine, but journalists in Central European states also run the gamut of legal threats and political pressures. Former Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman, who headed the government Srba served in, was famous for his disdain for journalists, whom he called "liars with the intelligence of mentally retarded schoolchildren" and "degenerate mongrels who only want sensations."
Under Mr. Zeman's government, Czech public television faced a management takeover by associates of Vaclav Klaus, then speaker of the parliament, who had a hand in state media appointments. In December 2000, journalists at the station launched a protest, barricading themselves in the studio and broadcasting rebel newscasts. Only after 100,000 people protested in Prague in the biggest demonstrations since the Velvet Revolution 10 years before was the political management forced to resign.
Yet, short-term victory led only to long-term troubles. The station is still plagued by political hiring and firing from a government-dominated board. A similar situation also developed in Hungarian public television last year, while Polish and even traditionally Western Austrian public stations have had to struggle to maintain their independence. Across Central and Eastern Europe, even private media tend to be dependent on sponsors who see them as a political tool.
Slonkova's case, journalists say, is a measure of the limited but still significant progress of press freedom in the region.
"We still need to be vigilant about threats against independent journalists," says Sasho Damovsky, editor of Dnievnik, which became Macedonia's first independent newspaper in 1996. "As long as politicians view independent media as an enemy, journalism will be a dangerous profession. We must strive for a political culture that sees a free press as a blessing."