Last Sunday Czech viewers tuning in to watch Czech TV's morning programme "Panorama" probably suffered something of a jolt - some quite a shock - when a camera feed showed a flash and then an atomic mushroom cloud rising over the Czech outdoors. The digital cloud, near the Giant Mountains, was accompanied by a web address belonging to a provocateur group of mostly-anonymous street artists known as Ztohoven.
The group has struck before. In 2002, members refashioned a neon sculpture, shaped as a heart in honour of outgoing President Vaclav Havel, into a giant question mark over Prague Castle. This time they raised the ante: hacking into a live TV broadcast with their own pre-taped feed. All it took was climbing onto a TV facility in the Krkonose area and connecting a notebook computer with a pirate feed to a camera and broadcast cable. The mushroom cloud over the Giant Mountains was "born".
A member of Ztohoven - his identity concealed and voice modified - explained the reason behind the illegal project:
"The aim of hacking into the live feed was to remind citizens they are routinely manipulated for political or economic reasons even in democracies like ours."
So far, officials at Czech TV have remained largely unruffled but the broadcaster said it would file charges within hours to the next few days against unknown assailants for spreading false alarm. Spokesman for Czech TV, Martin Krafl:
"We want to uncover who is responsible because this was manipulation which frightened tens of thousands of viewers."
Ztohoven operates in anonymity but its core group is well-known: it includes artists Mira Slava, Oto Horsi, Roman Tyc, and group spokesman Zdenek Dostal. Mr Dostal has already apologised on the group's behalf to the estimated 45,000 viewers on Sunday who suffered something of a shock when spotting the mushroom cloud. But he indicated the group would not shy away from similar projects in the future.
Police could investigate up to four possible charges in the case and the matter will now also be reviewed by the Council for Radio and TV Broadcasting, which could fine Czech TV up to 10 million crowns. While sources say that fines issued are usually lower (in the area of 100,000) any amount suffered by the public broadcaster would almost certainly lead to damages sought from the Ztohoven group.
Last but not least, security at the broadcast installation that was broken into last Sunday has not surprisingly been heightened.