In the final stretch of a bitter election campaign, presidential candidate Petr Pavel was forced to assure voters that he was still alive.
Reports of the former general’s death may not have prevented him romping to victory in the Czech Republic’s January presidential election, but they were just one example of the “alarming” levels of disinformation that blighted the vote, according to human rights commissioner Klára Šimáčková Laurenčíková.
“Disinformation works with human fear and prejudice. Not only is it an abuse of freedom of speech, but it supports thinking that leads to the violation of human rights,” she warned.
That will likely be music to the ears of those on the other end of the Russian servers that spread the news of Pavel’s “death”.
And while it’s clear that Russia’s war in Ukraine has turbocharged the flow of disinformation into the country, the Czech government’s pledge to quash it and shore up public and independent media looks to have become bogged down amid a lack of political will.
Despite its domination by oligarchs, the Czech Republic’s mainstream media landscape is relatively healthy compared with many in the region. This, say analysts, has produced a distinct disinformation environment, in which fake news, blocked from mainstream media, drives the development of alternative networks.
Prime Minister Petr Fiala promised ahead of his victory in elections in 2021 that his government would find a way to tame the myriad disinformation outlets and networks that have evolved under these conditions. But the approach looks far from strategic.
On taking office 16 months ago, Fiala appointed Michal Klíma, then the chair of IPI’s Czech national committee, to the newly invented post of media commissioner. This initially involved developing plans to improve media freedom. After the war in Ukraine began, the position was expanded to develop a democratic strategy for fighting disinformation.
Following a year or so largely filled with frustration, Klíma presented what he calls “potential solutions,” including increased restrictive powers aimed at disinformation outlets, interconnected measures to support independent media financially, and programmes to boost research and education, such as media literacy.
Critical voices were quick to appear, warning of censorship, a return to totalitarianism, and nepotistic scheming. In February, Klíma’s job was suddenly scrapped.
Although the reasons for the about-face have never been stated, it has long been suspected that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has handed the impetus to the conservative wing of Fiala’s centre-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which opposes such action.
“The war in Ukraine totally changed the government’s programme priorities,” Klíma told IPI shortly after he was ousted. He insists that Fiala and other senior members of the government remained supportive throughout, but says that his job became “mission impossible” as the political will to fight disinformation and support quality media evaporated.
The disinformation brief has now been passed to Tomas Pojar, a hawkish former diplomat appointed in January to the newly-created post of national security adviser.
While the delays and interruptions suggest otherwise, a report published by the ministry of interior in February, concluding that Czechia does not have the capacities to weather a serious disinformation wave, suggests Pojar’s new gig is a vital one.
But it seems that the national security advisor plans only to deal with part of the territory covered by Klíma’s action plan, a document that both Fiala and Pojar have recently declared all but dead.
Disinformation has had a deep impact on domestic politics in recent years, say analysts, who note it has helped radicalize sections of society.
However, Pojar – whom Klíma claims previously expressed to him a lack of interest in the media topic – has stated that he sees the job as a national security issue and suggested that he will limit his attention to targeting activity by foreign powers such as Russia and China.
“Pojar has many skills that are useful for fighting disinformation spread by external actors, so in this sense moving the brief under the NSA is good,” says Josef Šlerka, head of new media studies at Charles University. “But I’m not so sure he’s going to work on debunking fake news and false information around the domestic political scene.”
In other words, it seems that Czech disinformation networks will, for now, remain free to issue fake news about liberal democracy, the EU, environmentalism, or LGBT and Roma rights.
Which, if any, of the solutions in the initial disinformation action plan might yet be enacted is hard to predict. Pojar did not respond to a request from IPI to discuss his plans.
It might seem likely that under the auspices of national security, the emphasis could fall on the simpler and more restrictive measures, such as strengthening state powers to close down disinformation outlets. But opposition has also begun building against such simplistic measures.
“It may be that the government is now worrying that its supporters see any restriction of free speech as a bigger threat than disinformation,” says Šlerka.
Pojar has hinted that he subscribes to this way of thinking. “We have to deal with this issue concretely, soberly and always ensure that the individual steps taken by the Czech state bring more good and are less likely to be misused,” he said in a recent interview.
The other solutions proposed in the action plan look even more unlikely to be utilised.
Cutting disinformation outlets off from the billions of koruna in the state’s annual advertising budget is seen as a potentially powerful tool by analysts. However, the same lever is used in Hungary and Poland to boost government-friendly outlets and stifle independent media. Questions remain over who would have the power to designate media as sources of disinformation, and what powers they would then have to appeal.
Financial support for NGOs fighting disinformation and independent media, possibly in the form of subsidies, was another plank of the initial action plan. But many major media outlets have been swift to ask who would distribute the cash – suggested to total CZK150m annually – and to whom.
The oligarch owners of these outlets such as former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, Daniel Křetínský, or the Penta financial group, appear to have little interest in the quality of Czech media, and no wish to see truly independent media thrive.
Their outlook was illustrated late last year as the Union of Publishers, in which these oligarchs call the shots, helped scupper a copyright deal with Google that was seen as a potential financial boon for smaller outlets.
It’s clear that they’d like to see Fiala forget about his media crusade entirely. In an open letter to the premier, the Union of Publishers warned that the action plan is “a danger for the free press and freedom of speech … [that would] irreversibly damage the media environment.”
The resistance of these powerful business interests, in tandem with the influential conservative wing of the ODS, represent a formidable barrier to action, and there’s building concern that the disinformation and media fight could now slide from the government’s agenda.
“The action plan … will probably never be finalized and approved,” worries the European Values think tank.
The difficulties are illustrated by the apparent breakdown of plans to increase the powers of the authorities to shut down disinformation outlets.
In February 2022, seeking to shutter disinformation outlets spreading the Kremlin’s propaganda, the government was forced to rely on the cooperation of ISPs. The episode exposed what was labelled a legislative void.
By October, Interior Minister Vít Rakušan had a draft bill ready. But amid the refreshed – but not necessarily erroneous – concerns over free speech that opponents have helped build, even this drive may now be scuppered.
“I think any new legislation proposed would go deep, deep into the parliamentary process,” warns Šlerka. “No one will be keen to vote for new laws on disinformation as the next election approaches.”
The academic, who also works as a researcher and investigative journalist on disinformation, maintains that new laws are not necessary anyway. The police and courts already have sufficient powers to clamp down on dangerous disinformation if employed swiftly and efficiently, he claims.
On the other hand, a truly independent industry body – which the government can tap for the knowledge needed to build a media strategy and the necessary administrative capabilities to run it – is vital, stakeholders insist.
“A self-regulatory professional media association is key,” Šlerka says. “There’s not even a register of online outlets on which any decisions or action could be based.”
And with a similar void now on the government side, it could be that Fiala’s disinformation fight is over before it’s properly begun.
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This article was commissioned by IPI as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries, and Ukraine. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.