Unsynchronised Europe: Tackling Corruption and Ensuring Transparency in Recovery Funds
30 May 2023
4 August 2022
The last quarter of 2021 was an eventful one for Czech politics — a parliamentary election took place in October and, in mid-December, the new five-party coalition government was appointed. Researchers from Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI) monitored the website Sputnik CZ in the period from October to December 2021 to map how it reflected the formation of the new Czech government.
The parliamentary election brought an end to the minority government of the populist ANO 2011 and centre-left Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), externally supported by the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM). It was led by Andrej Babiš from ANO, who was seen as an acceptable candidate by Sputnik, thanks to his proclaimed defence of national interests and increasingly anti-immigration stance.
He was especially favoured compared to the more liberal-conservative coalition of the SPOLU (Together) alliance dominated by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the alliance of the Czech Pirate Party and the Mayors and Independents, who won the election.
This new government led by Prime Minister Petr Fiala is more firmly oriented towards the West, and likewise an ideologically unfavourable candidate for Sputnik, whose negative stance towards this coalition was visible already in its coverage prior to the elections.
It was, therefore, to be expected that the Czech branch of the Russian information agency Sputnik would have a biased approach to the new government, with the potential for disinformation campaigns. Sputnik CZ was established by the Russian state-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya in 2014.
Although Sputnik presents itself as a mainstream medium, experts consider it an important tool of Russian propaganda. In the examined time period, total visits to the website ranged between 1.9 million and 2.35 million, and its articles were also shared on its Facebook page with over 139 000 followers.
Sputnik’s reach makes it one of the most-read websites on the Czech disinformation scene and it has repeatedly proven to be the most active website in PSSI’s monitoring due to the amount of original content it produces, which also sets the tone for other manipulative websites.
During the post-election monitoring, PSSI researchers looked specifically at the website’s category ‘Opinions’ which is the main source of Sputnik’s manipulative content, as opposed to its news reporting, which is delivered chiefly in an informative and neutral manner. Around 70 per cent of the 139 examined opinion pieces were written by three Czech authors: Vladimír Franta (44 articles), Alena Novotná (32) and Jana Petrova (21).
These pseudo-commentators are notorious for their long-term cooperation with the website. Sputnik CZ is likely to benefit from this cooperation since the authors can provide insights unavailable to foreigners. At the same time, the editorial office distances itself from them and stresses that articles in the opinion sections represent only the opinion of the given author, which allows it to shed possible criticism for bias or inaccurate reporting.
The majority of the examined articles included interviews with either representative of anti-establishment political parties or both Czech and Russian sociologists and political scientists. The most space for expression was provided to the right-wing populist and eurosceptic party Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) with 21 interviews, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (10 interviews) and the national-conservative, hard eurosceptic Tricolour (6).
Representatives of similarly oriented Volný blok (Free Bloc), known for spreading COVID-19-related conspiracy theories, also made appearances, as did ČSSD. This demonstrates Sputnik’s long-standing good relationship with these parties who then get to use this platform to promote their positions and agenda.
The general stance of Sputnik towards the new government in the monitored months was rejecting and sceptical. Although Sputnik did not doubt the legitimacy of the election result as the choice of the people, it claimed the winning parties did not play fair from the start.
According to Sputnik, coalition forming is a process that should happen post-election. In doing so beforehand, the now governing parties supposedly cheated because the individual parties would not get the number of votes needed to get into the parliament.
That is why Sputnik presents the new government as undemocratic and unrepresentative. The web often emphasised the fact that this election saw ‘the most lost votes in the history of the Czech Republic,’ around 1 million, which makes the new government a ‘dictatorship of the minority.’
Moreover, the election result supposedly brought the Czech Republic closer to a regime of ‘limited sovereignty.’ The five-party coalition’s success was interpreted as the work of biased mainstream media like the public Czech Television and foreign intelligence services, all representing interests of external actors such as the European Union or the USA.
Sputnik presented the government and its agenda as a servant to Brussel’s whims and an antithesis to Czech national interests. The narrative of an undemocratic and totalitarian government was underlined by accusing the coalition of an open coup against President Miloš Zeman.
At the time of the formation of the government, the President experienced health problems that led to hospitalisation. The coalition considered evoking Article 66 of the Constitution, which would transfer the President’s powers to other constitutional authorities because of worries that the President’s health rendered him unable to properly carry out his duties.
Sputnik interpreted this as an openly aggressive attempt, in collaboration with the media and even the hospital where the President was staying, to get rid of a president who does not match the new government’s ideological stances and is one of the last obstacles on their way to control all Czech institutions.
Sputnik predicted a bleak future for Czech-Russian relations, as reported in 25 per cent of the articles. The website saw the embodiment of this issue in the contested candidate for the minister of foreign affairs, Jan Lipavský. President Miloš Zeman rejected Lipavský’s nomination at first, stating his reserved stance towards the Visegrad Group and Israel, as well as supposed lack of qualifications as the reason, and there was potential for a constitutional battle over the nomination with the new Prime Minister Fiala.
In the end, Zeman appointed Lipavský after Fiala personally vouched for him. In Sputnik, Lipavský’s stated plans to revise Czech-Russian relations were exaggerated as plans to bring this bilateral relationship to point zero as a part of the new government’s ‘doctrine of Russophobia’ and led to claims that ‘the Slovak Embassy will become the representative of the Czech state in Russia.’
Moreover, Lipavský’s new position was interpreted as a ‘reward’ for his role in ousting Russian and Chinese companies out of the tender for the Czech nuclear plant Dukovany. This supposed ‘death of Czech-Russian relations’ was also presented as a death sentence for the Czech economy.
The Russian share in the Czech economy and trade and Czech dependence on Russian energy was overstated to underline the probable catastrophic consequences of the new foreign policy towards Russia and to prove that by distancing itself from Russia, the Czech Republic would be ‘shooting itself in the foot.’
The new government is supposedly working on destroying the Czech economy, which will primarily impact seniors and young families, bring poverty and ‘annihilation of the social state.’ These claims were often accompanied by references to past right-wing governments.
As can be seen, Sputnik continues to utilise tactics typical of pro-Kremlin media such as exaggeration, pessimistic predictions, and fear-inducing narratives which build on past negative experiences, targeting socially vulnerable parts of the society and concerns about their basic needs.
Sputnik CZ has demonstrated its ability to promptly react to and put forward its own interpretations of major political events, such as a change of government, and to support its interpretations by giving the floor to experts and public figures ideologically in line with the medium.
Through its choice of interviewees, Sputnik not only draws voters of opposition parties into its readership — but Sputnik is also able to position itself as a platform where the voices of the one million voters left underrepresented after the election can be heard.
While the new government works on setting its agenda and building an image of legitimacy, it will be important to pay attention to the symbiotic relationship of pro-Kremlin, alternative media and the domestic political opposition, whether right-wing or left-wing.
Acknowledging the grievances of the opposition representatives and supporters will be needed, otherwise, they will keep turning to alternative media, creating a closed-off ecosystem inaccessible to mainstream media.
Due to Sputnik’s considerable reach and position from which it determines the tone for other manipulative websites, the new government needs to take the potential threat of its disinformation campaigns seriously and react proportionally.
To limit the impact of Sputnik and similar media on the public debate, the new government needs to go beyond declarations about the significance of disinformation and adopt a proactive stance — through a complex strategy for facing this threat, as well as dedicating an appropriate amount of resources to countering it.
The case of Sputnik also shows that disinformation thrives on pre-existing prejudice and uncertainties of vulnerable audiences, which can be used to undermine the legitimacy of the government and the mainstream media.
Therefore, besides reactive debunking and prosecuting the perpetrators, more preemptive and long-term measures against disinformation campaigns must include strengthening the trust in public institutions and independent media.
The original piece with sources can be found on PSSI here.
This article is part of the project: New Propaganda and Disinfo in CEE which involves numerous partners from across the region and is supported by the International Visegrad Fund. Click here for more information on the project.
Picture: Screenshot of Sputnik CZ on 4 August 2022
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