Press Review

Today's papers offer a broad selection of cover stories, ranging from recent developments in Iraq to a new study that reveals that almost 40 percent of Czechs use bribes to get what they need from bureaucrats, doctors, police, and judges, to name but a few. Mlada Fronta Dnes notes that some 40 billion crowns in cash or goods are secretly given in bribes each year, and writers that a quarter of the Czech population thinks bribes are perfectly normal. Not a pretty picture.

Turning to a story in the financial daily Hospodarske Noviny, the paper questions whether the state will be able to replace much needed helping hands currently serving in hospitals and schools, an alternative to military service in the Czech Republic till now. Some 15, 000 young Czech men are currently serving in the social sector for next to nothing, but that may soon change, if the Defence Ministry goes ahead with professionalisation of the military by 2004.

Scratching national service, Hospodarske Noviny writes, will leave a temporary vacuum in a sector which has benefited from the almost free labour until now. The paper notes that the minimum wage guaranteed by the state, some 6,000 crowns a month, is still far higher than pay given to those serving in hospitals and schools. And because it is unlikely that the social sector will be able to recover quickly, Labour and Social Affairs Minister Zdenek Skromach has indicated that the 50,000 or so who applied for alternative service in advance will still be required to do their duty, even if professionalisation goes through. As for who will replace the last ones when they're gone, that is a question no one in government, or in the opposition, has been able to answer yet, writes the daily.

In another story, Lidove Noviny notes that the Czech Republic's unfavourable rating by the UN commission for the protection of children's rights is one reason why the government wants to tighten legislation in the near future. An estimated 20 - 40, 000 children suffer physical abuse in their families here, with several dozen dying from extreme abuse each year. The government's aim, the paper writes, is to impose a broad ban on physical punishment, so that even in families a slap, though not a spanking on the behind, would transgress the law.

Speaking to the daily Marie Vodickova, from the Children in Need Foundation says: "Physical punishment here has long been a common method and it must be changed. Imposing a law would at least make things clear for both parents and social workers".

Meanwhile, today's Pravo takes notice of recent reaction by US Ambassador to Prague Craig Stapleton to the Social Democrats' anti-war resolution passed at their convention last month. The paper refers to an interview in the latest edition of the English-language weekly The Prague Post, in which the ambassador states that the resolution was insulting to Americans.

At least one person is surprised by the comments: Vladimir Lastuvicka, the head of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee. In Mr Lastuvicka's view "differences in opinion should not be a reason to take offence, but a reason to stop and think", writes Pravo. In any case the Social Democrats' anti-war resolution only represented the party, and not the official government stance.

And finally, a story today that shows of the pitfalls of stealing and then losing one's nerve: Mlada Fronta Dnes writes about Venek Herynk, a 30 year-old programmer at a Czech branch of the GE capital bank, who apparently understood the bank's computer accounting system better than anyone else. He siphoned 200 million crowns in bank funds to his personal account.

The rub, says Mlada Fronta Dnes: nobody at the bank would have even noticed the funds had gone missing, if the programmer had not lost his cool. Alarm bells only began to go off when the 30 year-old tried to return the money and nobody could explain the sudden jump in numbers. Though Herynk has given back some 70 million, he could face 7 years in prison. Meanwhile, speaking in court on Tuesday, he tried to defend his actions by calling the whole thing a practical joke.