Officials in Prague are worried that a growing disinformation campaign from fake news outlets backed by the Kremlin could use October’s Czech elections to destabilise the country’s democracy.
Warning shots were fired last month by Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka. He told an annual summit of European diplomats and political experts in Prague that dozens of fake news organsiations – believed to be funded by the Russian government – could destabilise 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.
As reported by Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s international broadcaster, the Czech Republic – long seen as a front line in the political tug-of-war between Russia and the West over influence in Europe – 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 specialised 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 defences 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 behaviour when the event will be as important as elections, he was quoted as saying by DW, 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.
“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.