With the Czech elections slated for October, officials are worried that a growing disinformation campaign backed by the Kremlin could destabilize the country's democracy. Philip Heijmans reports from Prague.
With the Czech general elections only a few months away, officials in Prague are bracing for a growing tide of disinformation from fake news outlets that they worry may have an irreparable impact on the country's democratic process.
Standing in front of hundreds of European diplomats and political experts during an annual summit in Prague last month, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka warned that intensified attacks from dozens of fake news organizations, largely believed to be funded by the Russian government, could destabilize the country.
"They have a potential of not only threatening our security, but they may also have a fatal impact on democratic principles and institutions that are the basis of our political system and the guarantee of our personal freedom," he said.
Long seen as a front line in the political tug-of-war between Russia and the West over influence in Europe, the Czech Republic remains a stronghold for clandestine activities and a breeding ground for espionage.
Prague's apprehension concerning Russian interference harks back to the more than four decades under Soviet-led communism the Czechs endured until gaining independence in the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
But the Czechs are fighting back. In January, the government launched a specialized anti-fake news unit under the Interior Ministry called the Center against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CTHH). It is charged with publicly debunking fake news, improving the Czech security apparatus and building defenses against hacking ahead of October's elections.
Threats in those areas are on the rise, according to the head of the CTHH, Benedikt Vangeli.
"As disinformation outlets react to any kind of significant political event with an increased amount of disinformation and propaganda, it is only logical to expect the same behavior when the event will be as important as elections," he said, likening the situation to the 2016 presidential election in the United States, in which Russian-backed disinformation networks and hackers were believed to have disrupted the democratic process.
"The future of every state or a nation must be in the hands of its citizens, and therefore we want to be prepared to face any possible influence campaigns in order to protect these values," he said.
Since 2014, more than 40 Czech-language fake news websites have been launched, according to a report released last year by Kremlin Watch, a program of the locally based think tank European Values. They maintain that the content of such websites has stoked public resentment over issues that have recently dominated European politics, namely the refugee crisis and the Syrian War, blame for the Ukrainian conflict and the rise of nationalism.
"Some of the disinformation comes directly from Russia and some is created locally along the general lines defined by the Russian propaganda machine, so the message content is coordinated and the actual messages are developed both in Russia … and by local websites providing 'alternative news,'" said Tomas Prouza, the former Czech state secretary for European affairs and Czech digital coordinator, who helped establish CTHH.
"I expect more stories that put into doubt democracy and the election process with the goal of discouraging some of the voters to turn up. Also, I expect more nationalistic and xenophobic news to scare people and increase chances that impressionable voters will vote for nationalist and xenophobic political outfits," he said.
Beyond fake news
The scope of the disinformation campaign, however, is far larger than just fake news websites, which were launched in conjunction with attacks from various paid trolls, hackers and Twitterbots. Kremlin Watch and others speculate that Russian agitators have been propping up local far-right, anti-immigrant groups, which have been staging an increasing number of often theatrical, attention-grabbing public demonstrations. These have included fake beheadings and demonstrators dressed in bed sheets, meant to mock traditional Arab clothing, marching around with toy weapons.
According to Prouza, a successful disinformation campaign of this magnitude in the Czech Republic, a country of just 10.5 million, could lower voter turnout between 5-10 percent, which could bode well for far-right candidates.
"In a tight race, it might make post-election coalition building more complicated," he said.
With public debate acutely focused on issues surrounding refugees and an enduring political crisis that this week saw Prime Minister Sobotka step down as head of his party, in addition to the resignation of billionaire Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babis last month, public trust in the government is faltering. According to a recent poll by the Public Opinion Research Center, dissatisfaction in the current political situation increased from 41 percent in April to 67 percent in May.
A pattern of political turmoil in the Czech Republic in recent years, along with general disdain for a news culture that is dominated by tabloid publications reaching 80 percent of the population, has helped pave the way for alternative news sources. Indeed, 25 percent of the population is thought to trust such outlets, said Veronika Vichova, a member of Kremlin Watch.
"In the Czech Republic, the general trust in public media and serious journalism is being continuously undermined, which helps to create the atmosphere of chaos and fear amongst the Czech public and clearly aims at silencing these channels," she said.
Protecting soft targets
Despite the risks, Prouza and Vangeli believe the country has taken some significant steps to combat the problem, including the implementation of a government-led national security review, a proposal to install hybrid threat units throughout each ministry, and the introduction of a new nationwide protocol for the prevention of hacking.
"The Czech Republic is the first country in the world with a systematic approach to soft targets protection," said Vangeli, referring to crowded places with little or no protection against serious violent attacks.
He also said that the country has been consulting like-minded EU member states on what can be done to combat the problem, though he admits it is still early days as he and his unit attempt to venture into uncharted waters.
"The center … has only existed for six months, so it is not easy to talk about accomplishments," he said.