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Czech reporter's narrow escape

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

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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.

'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."

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