The Czech government drops the ball on communicating NATO’s mission to the Baltics
Since this summer, the Czech Army has actively participated in the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic region, and this mission aims to increase the security of Baltic states.
In June and July, 290 Czech soldiers were deployed to Latvia and Lithuania. However, the deployment has sparked criticism. An analysis from the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI), examining the ways in which NATO was portrayed in the Czech media space between May 2017 and June 2018, found that the mission to the Baltics (mentioned in 413 articles) became a target of critical commentaries and disinformation.
The most fervent critics of the mission to the Baltics came from the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), who tend to criticise Czech membership in NATO itself and continually try to bring the country to a referendum on the subject. Representatives of the party repeatedly asserted that the stationing of NATO troops in the Baltics was a provocation towards the Russian Federation and would lead to escalating tensions or even an armed conflict.
The first graph (below) shows the critical stances represented by KSČM and its representatives – the shadow Minister of Defence Alexander Černý and the Chairman Vojtěch Filip – which dominated the media space.
On the other hand, the Ministers of Defence – Martin Stropnický and Karla Šlechtová – consistently supported the mission and attempted to explain its aims and purpose; however, they remained alone in the task. A notable exception in this regard was a General of the Czech Army and a former Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Petr Pavel.
Graph 1 – Actors mentioning deployment of troops to the Baltics
While the mainstream media presented various opinions on the deployment of Czech troops to the Baltics, websites known for spreading disinformation definitively rejected the mission. These websites published 151 articles concerning the mission in the observed period, which is almost as much as the mainstream media which published a total of 181. The mission became an appealing topic for those disseminating disinformation which made up a total of 81 articles in the observed period. For every three articles concerning the mission, there was one disinforming article.
Graph 2 – Types of texts
The best example illustrating the rhetoric used by disinformation platforms is a widely-shared commentary of Petr Hájek published on the website Protiproud on 13 July 2017 – on the day that the Chamber of Deputies authorised the deployment of troops to the Baltics. Hajek asserted that NATO’s presence in the Baltics constitutes a preparatory phase of an attack on Russia, he labelled Czech soldiers the “intervening army”, and added several references to Operation Barbarossa and the Second World War.
Similar arguments were also presented by other authors (such as Lubomír Man or extremist party Národní Demokracie) on disinformation platforms who were attempting to exploit the anti-American sentiments and fears of the outbreak of an armed conflict, which is present in the Czech population.
Other manipulative texts present on disinformation websites focused on the supposed unconstitutionality and illegality of deploying troops to the Baltics. Eva Novotná, the spokeswoman for the movement Ne Základnám (which was created in 2008 in protest against the plans to put an American radar on Czech territory), demanded that the Czech MPs follow the Constitution in an open letter to the Deputies, attempting to find a justification for finding the mission illegal in the text of the Constitution.
In another similar article, Novotná based her argument on the UN Charter and the Washington Treaty, where Article 1 in each respective document was seen as proof of illegality – or at least illegitimacy – of the mission to the Baltics. This type of manipulation which uses international agreements and the Czech Constitution can be especially effective if the legality and legitimacy is not consistently highlighted and explained by the country’s political representatives.
What to do next?
The findings of the PSSI analysis show that the Czech state did not manage to communicate the topic of the deployment of Czech troops to the Baltics well and left the space open for the initiative of critics and disinformers.
In order to avoid this in the future, state institutions should create and internalise a unified system of strategic communication which would aid in presenting such medially controversial topics to the public because, in the battlefield of today, information attacks can threaten our soldiers just as much as our enemies’ bullets.
Jonáš Syrovátka is an analyst at Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI). This text is based on data gathered in the project „Portrayl of NATO in Czech media“ and is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. The original article was published in Czech by HlídacíPes.