Last Tuesday, some shocking news stirred the quiet atmosphere of what was a national holiday here in the Czech Republic. A report published by the German branch of the United Nations Children's Fund UNICEF said child prostitution was rampant on the German-Czech border, with paedophiles flocking to the region from throughout Europe. The report went on to say that often the children were pimped by their own relatives, adding that the youngest children offered for sex were mere infants. The Czech authorities immediately dismissed the report. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, who was on an official visit to Slovakia to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia, also questioned the validity of the report.
"Measures should be adopted only after the situation is realistically assessed. We consider child prostitution and child pornography to be a great evil and we are trying to pay it due attention. I must say that the UNICEF report is not realistic and it does not reflect the real situation."
The Interior Ministry disparaged the UNICEF report, saying it was untrue, "It may be motivated by some individual efforts by certain non-governmental organisations to gain financial means," the head of the crime prevention department Jitka Gjuricova said. Interior Minister Stanislav Gross is still questioning the report; he said on Sunday he would demand evidence from the German side. If the report is not based on hard evidence, its authors should apologise, Minister Gross said.
Radio Prague spoke to Pavla Gomba, the director of UNICEF in Prague. She was not sceptical at all as to the veracity of the statements in the report, which was prepared by sociologist Cathrin Schauer from the non-governmental organisation KARO and supported by the wife of the German President Mrs Christina Rau.
"This report is the result of co-operation between UNICEF in Germany and a non-governmental organisation called Karo, which has been active in the border region since 1996. And I think there have been some indications that the Czech Republic has a problem of child prostitution. But I think it's very difficult to measure the scale of the problem. We do not pretend to know the exact scale of the problem but the fact is that prostitution is a flourishing industry in the border regions, and there are very serious and reliable indications that it involves children as well."
The mayors of two Czech towns situated near the German border joined the senior officials in refuting the UNICEF claim that child prostitution was rampant there. The mayors of Cheb and As said they stood by Czech police claims that contradict the scathing German-produced report. Jan Svoboda is the mayor of the western Bohemian town of Cheb.
"I see it as sensationalism. The organisation Karo, which apparently cannot find a niche for its activities in Germany, is looking for a market elsewhere. Here it found materials which are, by the way, two years old. That they released it now, on the Czech Republic's national holiday, is very unethical and dishonourable. I have talked to that organisation a few times. Every time they put on a friendly face, and we have agreed many times that child prostitution is not the most significant problem. And now they are making such a song and dance. And I will not comment on the role of the wife of the German president, I don't want to cause any international disgrace. I will not comment on that."
"I think the challenge is that child prostitution is of a very secret nature; it takes place behind walls, on empty streets, in forests and parks, and there are, of course, no official statistics. But I think that child prostitution is a problem in the Czech Republic. We just don't know what the scale of the problem is."
Cheb's Mayor Jan Svoboda says that if the authors of the UNICEF report have sound evidence of child prostitution, they should act accordingly.
"If they have that information, I don't see why they do not press criminal charges. Because otherwise they are covering up a crime and they're just taking advantage of the situation in order to produce a sensation. And I have no intention of cooperating or communicating with such people. They are not helping, they are doing harm. If they want to help, they should really help and not only create sensations for the media and cause scandals."
For years Czech officials, including Cheb's mayor, have accused German TV stations and magazines of exaggeration and sensational reporting about border prostitution. Two years ago, Czech journalist Martin Kadnar assisted a German television team who were trying to shoot a report on child prostitution in Cheb.
"Myself and two other reporters, one from Spiegel Press and the other from Spiegel TV, were sent to Cheb to find out about child prostitution. We were prepared to use hidden cameras and pretend to be clients seeking out children. All we managed to find out was that close to the hospital there indeed is one street, inhabited by Roma who lure paedophiles. According to what we found, the client goes to the house convinced he would get sex with a child and they tell him if you don't give us 500 euros we will report you to the police and beat you up to boot. So they eventually give them the money."
The team got in touch with the NGO KARO and Martin Kadnar also spoke to Cathrin Schauer, the author of the latest UNICEF report.
"She kept telling us how widespread child prostitution was there. We were eager to record something. But she did not help us at all, she could not find anyone and she seemed very evasive. So we went out to the streets around the organisation's office where prostitution is rife and we spoke to the prostitutes. And they told us that Mrs Schauer had told them to tell everybody and especially foreign news teams just how widespread child prostitution was in the area."
It is a well-known fact that thousands of Germans cross the border every year to avail of relatively cheap prostitutes. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Czech-German border region has turned into what some call the biggest open-air brothel in the world. But experts say the problem of child prostitution in the Czech Republic is in no way worse than in other countries.
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