The projection and exaggeration of a potential threat is a powerful weapon itself
Unfortunately for the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, very few immigrants of Muslim origin can be found in Slovakia, as most of them head to other European countries, such as Germany, France or Scandinavia. Yet, a skilled politician is never short of solutions; three days ahead of the March 2016 parliamentary elections, Mr. Fico flew to the Greek-Macedonian border just so he could hold a press conference with Syrian refugees in the background. “I am a person who has seen all kinds of horrors…. But this is not [that]… this is danger!” Mr. Fico confessed to cameras while a number of refugees behind him were visibly distressed by the media attention.
“Two years ago, politicians barely mentioned migration… [however, now] the anti-immigration rhetoric has since been mainstreamed.” Marie Heřmanová, project coordinator for Migration at Open Society Fund Prague, points to a relatively new phenomenon of fear-mongering. With the migration crisis worsening, politics of fear and criminalization of Muslims has spread around the world like a wildfire. In Great Britain, anti-immigration rhetoric and lies dominated the Brexit campaign and eventually contributed to the country’s decision to depart from EU. In central Europe, populist parties and politicians such as Viktor Orbán, Robert Fico and Miloš Zeman exploit the legitimate popular fear of Islamic extremism to win some extra votes and supporters.
The manipulative potential of fear-mongering in politics has been tested numerous times throughout history. During the Nuremberg Trials, Hermann Goring claimed that “the common people don’t want war… but the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. It is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
Very often, one does not necessarily need to be physically experiencing the source of the fear to feel endangered; just the projection and exaggeration of a potential threat is a powerful weapon itself. This is especially true for many Central European countries that saw an upsurge of anti-refugee rhetoric and the rise of xenophobic populists, even though very few refugees have settled there. In 2015, Slovak authorities granted asylum only to 8 people and Czech Republic to 71.
Regardless of the legitimacy of the fear and security aspects stemming from a large influx of people into Europe, conspiracy theories and half-truths have already begun to spin perceptions. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to assess who exactly is the biggest source of anti-refugee narratives. As a recent study by the Czech NGO People in Need pointed out, hate-speech against immigrants has a cyclic nature – it is very hard to determine who is dominant in the media-politicians-society triangle and what are the particular motives of each group.
The problem has been exacerbated by social media and the emergence of “alternative media websites” as they present a significant component of the hate-speech debate and facilitate the spreading of lies and stereotypes. Research from the Masaryk University in Brno sheds more light into some of the most common manipulative online tactics with regards to the refugee crises. By studying 2660 articles from pro-Russian alternative media websites, they proved negative emotions play an important role especially when it comes to potentially inflammatory issue of refugee crisis. 32% of articles that discussed the refugee crisis were negatively charged – in 52% they incited fear, in 20% hatred and in 19% outrage.
“By appealing to fear, they are sending a message that the current political establishment cannot deal with the migration crisis and does not have the situation under control,” Petra Vejvodová, a political scientist from the Masaryk University and one of the initiators of the research, commented on the findings. “Feeling secure is one of the basic needs of individuals, thus an easy method of mobilizing the society.”
While the goal of alternative pro-Russian websites is to erode the public trust in democratic institutions, populists play on a different note. According to Roman Maca, a Czech blogger, the goal of politicians is to be elected into office. “This is especially the case for populist politicians – they search for their own topic and this is the easiest way to win voters and gain political capital.”
In the Czech Republic, such practices have traditionally been used by smaller parties on the extreme right that openly defame refugees, organize protests against immigration or spread outright lies and conspiracy theories. However, with more people on European borders and particularly after the deadly terrorist attacks in France, the topic has been exploited by the political mainstream as well. “Immigration has a special place in the Czech Republic, mainstream parties like ANO, part of ČSSD or KSČM are devoting special attention to this topic, despite the fact that the immigration crisis has not hit the Czech Republic,” Ms. Vejvodová commented.
One of the most prominent politicians to criminalize immigrants on a regular basis sits in the presidential palace. The Czech President Miloš Zeman has been strongly advocating against immigrants, calling for deportation of refugees and encouraging Czechs to buy weapons to protect themselves against incoming Muslims. On one occasion, he called the current immigration crisis “an organized invasion.” By whom the invasion is organized, President Zeman failed to clarify.
In Slovakia, xenophobic rhetoric dominated the political campaign throughout most of the 2015 as well as the beginning of 2016. In the run-up to the March 2016 parliamentary election, and in an effort to raise more votes for the ruling SMER party, the Slovak Prime Minister regularly held press conferences and staged media appearances in an effort to sensationalise the problem. He stressed his efforts to prevent the creation of a “Muslim community” in Slovakia as well as stop Arab men from raping Slovak women, statements intended to scare rather than reassure his electorate. He also most likely attempted to divert public attention from many corruption scandals of SMER party officials.
The political gains of the mainstream parties that have capitalized on anti-refugee anxiety are somewhat questionable. Despite the relentless efforts, Mr. Fico’s party did not score well in the March election. Instead, he succeeded in bringing the anti-immigration rhetoric to the centre of the political campaign and eventually brought more votes to anti-immigration hardliners, such as neo-Nazi LS NS headed by extremist Marian Kotleba that now occupies 14 seats in the Slovak parliament.
In other cases, fear-mongering has borne its fruits. The ANO party of Czech oligarch and Finance Minister Andrej Babis, who has been stressing the economic burden of refugees, often through unfounded claims such as that most of the immigrants in Germany are unable to work, has recently won the election in regional councils with 21.05 percent of the popular vote. According to the most recent polls, Mr. Babis is also the most trusted Czech politician. To what extent this popularity can be attributed to his vilification of refugees and xenophobic statements remains a question as other factors contributed to his success too.
In both countries, the biggest problem is the lack of balance in the debate as very little is done to counter the anti-refugee narrative. Long gone are the times xenophobic voices were ostracized by the political mainstream. “There is nobody among the elites or leaders that would contradict the rhetoric of fear. People with the absence of critical thinking miss the whole picture and are constantly fed by only one part of the truth, or by outright lies in some cases” warns Monika Svetlíková, specialist on migration and project manager at the People in Need Slovakia. Only the Slovak President, Andrej Kiska, offers some window of hope as the only Visegrad president who speaks of solidarity with refugees and against xenophobia and rise of extremism.
Words matter and widespread fear-mongering contributes to the growing hatred among minorities. “The constant search for an enemy legitimates and strengthens negative mood in the society,” Ms. Svetlíková further pointed out. Increased hate-crime and killing of a Pole in post-Brexit Britain is a tragic reminder of the danger stemming from populist hate-speech, yet very few Central-European politicians seem to realize consequences of their words.
This article was first published in Visegrad Insight 1 (10) 2017.
 The unemployment rate of immigrants in Germany is 12% http://echo24.cz/a/iZyis/lze-babis-o-uprchlicich-maji-se-lepe-nez-cesti-duchodci