From the Weeklies

Abuse of personal data is something Czechs have learnt to live with; will a new law, due to go into effect on December 1st, change that? Professional gamblers, a new breed in the Czech Republic. And, the problems of getting supplies to villages whose link to the outside world is tenuous. These are just some of the interesting stories in this week's magazines.

Abuse of personal data, in its milder forms, is something that Czechs have learnt to live with. For years the communist regime collected whatever personal data it thought fit, and so, after the Velvet Revolution, when Czechs found that advertising companies had got hold of their names and addresses, it did not seem like much of an issue. Neither was there a fuss when a certain political party contacted close to 1,000 pensioners of a given region by name, in an effort to win their vote.

In the first years of free market economy, Czechs helpfully filled in all sorts of questionnaires when ordering goods by post and, some years later, spared little thought for the fact that their Internet hobby was also giving away information about them. The installation of cameras in certain public places was welcomed as a way of improving safety and cracking down on drug-peddling and theft in the city-centre.

Much of this is about to change, since a new law on the protection of personal data is to come into effect in the near future. A new institute has been established for that purpose, and its director, Karel Neuwirt, admits that reversing the trend will not be easy. First we have to find out who is in the business of collecting data, Neuwirt told Tyden magazine. Anyone who does will have to register with us, or face a twenty-million-crown fine.

The Institute for the Protection of Personal Data is to wield fairly extensive powers, and the law is especially strict regarding protection of sensitive data such as religion, sexual orientation or political activities. But Tyden magazine notes that there are a large number of private detective agencies and firms who operate on the margin of the law--or outside it. They have their own databases, containing information on the private income, business and political activities and sexual orientation of selected individuals.

In fact, there are some firms which specialize in public figures--predominantly politicians--digging up potentially damaging information at their own initiative, and offering it to the person's political opponents. This has been confirmed by several politicians, among them the former head of the intelligence service, Stanislav Devaty, who told the weekly his friends had warned him they had been offered a file of allegedly damaging information on him. This is obviously a task for the police to tackle in cooperation with the aforementioned institute. What complicates matters somewhat is that most of these private detective agencies are run by former police officers, who have retained many of their contacts and know the ropes as well as their colleagues.

Gambling is something most people try at one time or another, and some try their luck in the lottery repeatedly in the firm belief that if they persist for long enough they've GOT to hit the jackpot sooner or later. Others don't like to leave much to luck. They are out to get rich in the sports-betting business and say it's damned hard work.

In the past decade the betting business has boomed, with record turnovers and record winnings, and now there are enthusiasts who have found it pays to do it for a living. They bet on the outcome of sports events and the pros no longer stand in little kiosks to fill in their tickets and hand over their money. Some betting shops have linked up with so-called sports bars that provide the kind of service that Internet users find in Internet cafes. The professional gamblers come in, order food and drinks, place their bets and watch the sports events on TV. Often they'll come close to cardiac arrest as 150 thousand crowns goes down the drain because of a penalty shot in the last 5 seconds of a football game. But that's part of the business.

Milan Doruzka of the Fortuna Betting company says it is hard to estimate how many people are making a living off gambling alone, but he thinks it's quite a few and the number is growing. They need some capital from earlier winnings to start off with and once they have that they just put aside twenty thousand a month to live off and put the rest back into the game. If they are good, their capital will gradually grow, even with the inevitable losses. Where else can you turn 400 crowns into 150 thousand in the space of two hours?

In a world of supermarkets and shopping malls there is an ad on TV that transports viewers into another world. A battered van drives into a village honking a familiar greeting and, by the time it grinds to a halt, its customers are on the way, having left whatever it was they were doing. When the mobile shop comes around you don't stop to think twice. Your next chance at shopping is another week away.

Strange as this seems to viewers in Prague, there are dozens of Czech villages where this is still the way of life. As young people move to the city or at least to larger towns, many small villages shrink to a group of elderly people, for whom the aforementioned van is the only link to the outside world, bringing them food, newspapers, medicine and gossip from nearby settlements where they have friends or relatives.

To quote Mlady Svet, which sent its reporter to find out what life was like in once such place, the local van-driver-cum-salesman is like the Internet for the locals. They do their shopping, order what they want for next week, find out what's new and give Mr. Melich their own news to pass on to family and friends on his weekly round of 55 villages.

The only bus stop in the vicinity of Zalsi is 4 km away. The alternative for the more sprightly is to hop onto a bicycle, weather permitting. None of the inhabitants of the six houses that are still inhabited owns a car and most of them are happy with the present arrangement.

However, for Mr. Melich the daily chore is becoming something of an ordeal. "Given the present fuel prices, I lose money in this business and it's only thanks to the fact that I have two regular shops that I can continue to finance it," he told Mlady Svet. "The thing to do would be to increase the price of goods, but these pensioners have trouble making ends meet as it is, and I don't have the heart to tell them that I won't be coming round any more. From where they stand, it would be tantamount to disaster, since nobody in their right mind would set up this kind of service nowadays," Mr. Melich says.

According to Mlady Svet, there are around 10 mobile shops left in the country, each servicing several dozen villages. The Jihlava region, which comprises four large cities and several medium ones, has 50 small villages or settlements which have never had a permanent shop. They used to be serviced by 6 mobile shops and 2 mobile butchers. Today they are dependent on a single mobile shop.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry recently unveiled a regional development plan for middle-to-small businesses, which envisages a 50% favourable-interest-rate loan for potential mobile-shop operators. However, even with that advantage, running a mobile shop will never be a profitable business, and its future depends largely on local enthusiasts, such as the aforementioned Mr. Melich.