From the Weeklies

Fighting abuse of mobile phones, is it a lost cause? Czech Air Force pilots, are they professionals or daredevils? And, will doctors convince smokers that they are SICK people? These are some of the interesting stories in this week's magazines.

Thousands of Czechs have been finding racist messages on their mobiles of the type "for every dead gypsy you get 50 minutes worth of calling time free of charge". According to Czech law, this qualifies as a crime, but as in similar cases of Internet abuse, the police are making little or no progress in tracking down the perpetrators. Tyden magazine, which has consulted several mobile operators on the matter, has little encouraging news for readers.

Oscar representative David Vlk says there is no way of preventing this form of racism, while Jan Kucmas of Eurotel says the privacy of messages is sacred. Operators do try to block mass dispatches from a single user, but a clever user can get around that, and the contents of messages are never checked. "We respect our clients' privacy," Kucmas says.

Another less offensive form of abuse of the mobile, certainly from the viewpoint of the police, is that a drivers' association calling itself Radar has put together a very effective service for drivers, warning them about speed radars and police check points. According to many drivers who love speeding, the service saves them thousands of Czech crowns worth of fines. When we attempted to block the service, says a Radiomobil representative, a procession of very angry and arrogant young men appeared in our office threatening all manner of things. They took the case to the Czech Telecommunications Agency and won, which sets a definite HANDS OFF precedent for us, he concludes.

In the late afternoon of August 1st, an L-29 Dolphin fighter jet soared through the clouds above the Pardubice airfield. Lieutenant Jan Malo, an experienced pilot with over two thousand flight hours to his name, had just 15 minutes left to live. He died in the wreckage of his plane after failing to eject and newscasters reporting on the tragedy that night underlined the fact that it was the sixteenth army plane to crash in the last five years.

With every new crash the media pressure rises. What is behind these tragedies? Malfunctioning aircraft? Inadequate training? Or simply lack of discipline? "Are our army pilots professionals, or are they daredevil enthusiasts risking their lives on badly maintained planes?" asks this week's Tyden magazine in an article entitled "The Elite in the Skies".

The jury is still out on the case of Jan Malo, but there are numerous witnesses to testify that his plane was flying dangerously close to the ground. Skimming tree-tops, according to some. The plane's proximity to the ground was the reason why Malo failed to eject. Experts testify that pilots flying a Dolphin L-29 fighter jet have no chance of ejecting below an altitude of 350 meters. Modern aircraft allow one to eject even when the plane is grounded, but not these planes, an expert told Tyden.

Why was Malo flying so low on the day of the tragedy? Could the proximity of his country cottage have had anything to do with it? Several villagers admit that they could always tell when Jan was flying overhead because he would dip the plane in silent greeting. However, they add that on the day of tragedy he was flying lower than usual and the engine was making funny noises. Did Malo lose his life because of antics for friends? Impossible to say at this stage, Tyden notes. But we do know that pilots do it. According to Army Chief of Staff Jiri Sedivy, lack of discipline and violation of flight orders was behind the 1998 crash in Ceské Budejovice when two fighter jets collided mid-air and one crashed into a densely populated housing estate. It was moreover ascertained that in violation of the rules, one of the two-seater planes carried an extra passenger.

But it is not just Czech pilots who have discipline problems, Tyden notes, reminding readers of the Italian tragedy over Cavalese caused by the antics of US pilots who played the daredevil game of flying under the cables of a mountain funicular. Swooping under cables was always a popular sport among pilots, says historian Jiri Rejlich, who told the magazine he had spoken to several pilots who'd fought in the Battle of Britain, and everyone of them admitted to having taken a dare now and then. It's as old as flying, Rejlich told Tyden.

In a way pilots are an elite group, a close-knit society who feel themselves to be above the constraints of regular army officers. And disciplined as they may be, occasionally they'll lapse. To cut an eight-page story short, Tyden believes the high incidence of plane crashes in the Czech Air Force is a combination of ill-maintained planes and occasional lapses of discipline.

However, Tyden says it is far from claiming that Czech pilots have an easy life and risk their lives out of boredom. "We are enthusiasts, otherwise we wouldn't be here," say the pilots themselves. An experienced army pilot gets twenty thousand crowns a month. A commercial airline would give them twice that amount or more. They are constantly up against financial constraints, such as not having enough money for petrol, which results in less flight training than they should be getting. And lots of time wasted in commuting to a far-off airfield because there is no accommodation at their disposal close to base.

To top it all, just two years ago many of them were even paying for their own life insurance, because the sum their families would get in the event of their death or disability would be woefully inadequate. As a result, many experienced pilots have left the Air Force. Has this caused a problem and what is being done to improve matters? Tyden magazine says it was unable to get a response from the officials responsibl--the army's press department remained tight-lipped when asked about the problems the Czech Air Force is struggling with.

I don't know about you, but I don't know a single smoker who appreciates good advice about their habit. However, with the number of smokers on the increase and the average age at which children start smoking decreasing, the Czech Medical Chamber feels it is time to tell smokers that they are, in fact, SICK. The idea is that doctors should diagnose smoking as an illness and inform patients about available cures. Not once, but every time you visit your GP.

The Medical Chamber is encouraging all doctors to embrace this approach and wants health insurance companies to co-finance treatment of the "F17 syndrome", as the World Health Organization calls tobacco dependency. As of next year, the anti-dependency drug Zypan, which has helped many smokers in Western Europe, should be available on the Czech market, and the Czech Medical Chamber thinks that if smoking is treated as an illness the country could finally make some headway in reducing the number of lung-cancer deaths.

According to the Medical News weekly report, however, negotiations on this have not been going too well, and so far health insurance companies are not willing to cover this expense. A lot depends on the attitude of the Health Ministry, which may ultimately bring the insurance companies around to the Medical Chamber's way of thinking. It has already launched its small war against smokers by proposing that smoking be banned at all tram and bus stops in the country. Some of the reactions elicited are allegedly unprintable.