PR firms shown the door in "Internet for Schools" project

It was in the year 2000 that the Social Democrat government first proposed its ambitious Internet for Schools Project, a project aimed at increasing computer literacy among schoolchildren throughout the Czech Republic by providing 230,000 computers and internet connections for schools. While ambitious and certainly positive overall, the project has not been free of controversy, with the government failing to meet an important deadline concerning tenders for project suppliers Autocont and Czech Telecom. Later, the former Finance Minister criticised the project's soaring costs as disadvantageous for the state. Now, the new Education Minister Petra Buzkova has added fuel to the controversy by cancelling contracts with two public relations companies involved in creating media campaigns for the Internet for Schools project, allegedly because millions of crowns were being wasted. Jan Velinger has this report.

Education Minister Petra Buzkova has cast doubt on contracts signed by Education Ministry officials in the former government, contracts worth millions of crowns for media campaigns and PR work done by private agencies that ministry spokeswoman Hana Vitkova says should have been done by members of the ministry press office instead. The contracts are now being investigated by the State Audit Authority, and it can not be ruled out that the police may get involved as well, if evidence of corruption is found.

"It's true that we don't have all the information yet concerning the contracts that were signed - we're now going to wait for results from the State Audit Authority that will begin investigations this Friday. Nevertheless, our own internal audit team discovered that certain funds allocated for the Internet for Schools Project were used very inefficiently. The two contracts that were rescinded were for public relations companies who essential did work that should be done by the ministry press office, and were not efficient as such."

Jiri Chvojka, the head of Goodcom, one of the companies whose contract has been terminated, accepts the client's right to cancel but disagrees that the ministry could have handled the earlier work load itself.

"Actually, in the time that we started the work there were only three people in the press department of the ministry, and there was over a thousand questions over the project in a week, so there was no possibility that the Ministry of Education could do the job. It's the right of our client to cancel the contract, so I don't see any problem in that, and I wish the Education Mi9nistry good luck in answering thousands and thousands of questions because there is still no staff to do it."

Education Ministry spokeswoman Hana Vitkova says that the situation is being addressed, that the press office at the ministry is being prepared and will be ready to see the Internet for Schools project through, even though she admits some PR agencies will still be involved in the future, presumeably at less inflated costs.