Usually, extreme situations are the best at revealing human nature. This observation also applies to the media – when they have to report on moments of crisis, it is easy to recognize their professionalism, ethical principles and ideological profiling or lack thereof. The attempted poisoning of the former Colonel of Russian Intelligence Service, Sergey Skripal, in the UK was one such situation.
This poisoning and the subsequent events were monitored in the Czech media relatively intensively. According to data obtained using the ICT tool >versus< developed by International Republican Institute, the word Skripal appeared in 2377 texts published between 5 March and 3 April on Internet news portals. This issue got considerable attention in the Czech media space also due to the fact that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said that the used poisonous substance – Novichok – could come from the Czech Republic.
In analysing the way in which the media reported the event, it is possible to identify two camps in the Czech media scene, which together have little in common. The majority of articles was published by mainstream media. Their news coverage was based (almost exclusively) on statements by political agents and intelligence agencies and so their reporting was relatively unified.
On the other hand, there were a significantly smaller number of articles published on “alternative media”, which have brought into the debate various (and often contradictory) arguments or narratives challenging the official version.
The thematic uniformity of coverage of the Skripal case from mainstream news sites (mostly associated with printed journals) was mainly due to the fact that their key and primary source was the Czech News Agency (ČTK). This has changed only after the domestic political actors became more involved in this topic – e. g. the Minister of Foreign Affairs denied the possibility that the Novichok used for Skripal’s poisoning could have originated in the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, a considerable amount of mainstream media are dependent on CTK (which is a public service media similar to Czech Television and Czech Radio), but this may be somewhat risky at the moment when someone tries to manipulate it.
The sphere of disinformation
Alternative media (in the given context, the use of this term is entirely appropriate, as these web portals have published texts containing interpretations that differed significantly from the mainstream) delayed disseminating information about the Skripal case. More distinctive coverage was devoted to this issue only after 12 April.
Most of the texts dedicated to this topic were not messages describing the events, but commentaries focusing on the various contexts of the case. The topic was relatively fragmented, and the views presented on the different platforms were changing very rapidly. The individual platforms were quite intertwined, so it was not unusual that the comment published on one of them was republished on several others, within less than 24 hours. Most of the texts dealing with the Skripal case were written by a small group of authors publishing regularly on these platforms.
Even though the texts differed with their arguments, there was a consensus that Russia would not bother trying to poison Skripal. Most authors did not try to cope with the complicated conspiracy theories but pointed out the alleged shortcomings of the official version.
The most frequently mentioned argument pointed to the fact that Russia, unlike other actors, did not have any motive to poison Skripal. Theories have emerged that Skripal was poisoned by the Russian oligarchs living in London or British agents who wanted to disrupt the course of the Russian presidential election, Americans trying to incite a war in Europe, or Islamic terrorists who want to strengthen the mismatch between the West and Russia.
In some texts, these theses were supplemented by statements challenging the origin of nerve agent used to poison Skripal in Russia. A New York Times article reporting about the assistance of American specialists during the liquidation of the laboratories in Uzbekistan – where the Novichok was developed – was often referred to. They argued that not only the United States but also Iran, terrorists or the United Kingdom (which reportedly tested it at the Port Down laboratories near Salisbury) should have this nerve agent available.
According to other articles, the production of the Novachok is rather trivial and so the nerve agent could be de facto available to anyone.
There were frequent references to the alleged false statements of the British authorities relating to similar instances, particularly with reference to the false justification of the 2003 invasion to Iraq.
While the various conspiracy theories resonated in the bubble of alternative media and brought more peripheral social figures to the broader public space (such as Josef Skála, member of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia), the relativization of the event was much more widespread.
The vague comments such as “God knows how it really was” and “think how they lied us about Iraq” have appeared in the public space quite often. The crown of this wave of relativism was put in place by President Milos Zeman, who ordered the Czech counter-intelligence service BIS to look for whether the Novichok really was in the Czech Republic. Even though the Foreign Minister had previously stood up against the claim that it was possible to obtain this nerve agent from Bohemia.
Thus, the Skripal case has again illustrated not only the fact that there are (at least) two camps in the Czech media sphere, which have only a little in common, but also the fact that the feeling of mistrust towards official sources of information is widespread beyond the scope of alternative media platforms. This is something that should concern for us way more than the dozens of alternative explanations surrounding the attempt to poison the former Russian intelligence officer.
Jonáš Syrovátka works as a Project Coordinator at the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI).