After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, Czechoslovak officials started the process of orienting the country’s foreign policy towards the West. The stress was on building good relations with neighbouring countries, those in the EU and NATO. On January 1, 1993, the federation split, and the Czech Republic was established. During the 1990s and in the first decade of new millennium, official relations with Russia were mostly limited to declarations about the development of the relationship in the area of common interests between the two countries. Special attention has always been paid to bilateral relations in energy security policy, since Russia is the biggest supplier of gas to the Czech Republic.
There is a point of view that the act of the annexation of Crimea brought a certain dynamic to these mutual relations. A resolution approved by 121 out of 200 Czech deputies stated that the annexation of Crimea was recognised as an act of violence by the Russian Federation, breaching international law. This resulted in the Czech government’s absolute refusal to officially recognise the Crimean referendum. The Czech Republic also officially supports the EU’s sanctions policy towards Russia. This international security issue provoked debates and disputes in the Czech Republic. The position of parliament and government is clear. That is, to criticise the Agrarian Chamber businessmen and representatives in agriculture by pointing out that Czech companies have been dealing with complications due to decreasing prices and loss of access to foreign markets, as well as loss of investments spent on entering the Russian market before 2014. Even though imports from and exports to Russia have decreased since the sanctions were imposed, statistics show that Czech foreign trade has risen overall, with Czech companies turning towards other markets.
However, the pro-sanction policy has been undermined by Czech President Miloš Zeman. His official statements are considered contradictory, as he mentions that the economic sanctions are harming the economic interests of the Czech Republic. Another example is Zeman’s position towards the annexation of Crimea. According to the president, although Russia violated international law, the return of Crimea to Ukraine is impossible. In October 2017, Zeman repeated this statement at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, proposing that Russia compensate Ukraine for Crimea, either financially or with oil and gas.
Since 2015, Russia has taken central place in Czech security debates. In the new Czech Security Strategy of 2015, it is mentioned that the Czech Republic is aware of the threat to security posed by some states seeking to change the existing international order. These states are ready to achieve their goals by using hybrid warfare strategies combining conventional and unconventional military means with non-military tools. The Russian Federation is directly mentioned in the 2016 report as a state to be watched regarding the national security situation. The Russian propaganda and disinformation campaign is recognised as one of the top 10 threats to Czech internal security. The intelligence services monitor attempts to build networks of like-minded people among politicians, state officers, and lobbyists. The Czech Counter-Intelligence Agency BIS (Bezpečnostní a informační služba) claims in its 2015 annual report that Russian information operations in the Czech Republic are focused on weakening the strength of Czech media, strengthening the pro-Russian opposition, weakening society’s resistance, and promoting inter-societal and inter-political tensions.
All in all, the Czech Republic has become a target for Russian geopolitically-driven hybrid warfare, and has experienced various influences on different scales. These include disinformation campaigns, economical activities, the presence of a wide group of agents influencing decision-makers, and newly introduced cyberattacks.
A number of interviewed experts agree that any group among the Czech population is susceptible to disinformation. It is almost impossible that one campaign could influence society as a whole, but a well-aimed campaign can be very powerful when targeting a specific group of people. It depends on tailoring the tools of the narrative. Considering pro-Kremlin narratives, it is worth mentioning that there is a susceptible Russian minority population living in the Czech Republic. The number of people among the Russian ethnic community has been rising in recent years. Official statistics indicate that there are 36 000 Russians in the Czech Republic (0.4% of the Czech population). According to the Government Council for National Minorities, this group is considered to be the target of pro-Kremlin propaganda. The annexation of Crimea and other policies implemented by Russia are the reasons for intra-ethnic disputes. It is estimated that the majority of the Czech Republic’s Russian population criticises Russian policy, but recent Russians arrivals who do not respect the system of the Czech Republic and aggressively lobby their own interests have been the main cause of recent disputes.
Nevertheless, the majority of experts interviewed within the framework of this research confirm that there is no need to prioritise potentially vulnerable groups in the Czech Republic, because pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns can influence a wide range of target groups among the general public. Pro-Kremlin ideology can potentially influence those people who trust neither national political institutions nor European and international organisations. Their criticism of pro-Kremlin statements, and of Russia, can serve as a geopolitical alternative in terms of ensuring the security of Europe. Data from 2017 show that only half of Czech society (48%) trusts the European Union, and another half (47%) does not. In the case of the NATO, 58% of respondents trust this institution and 33% do not. While comparing the data in a timeline, it is certain that there has been no big shift, and the level of (dis)trust appears to be stable.
Concerning the Czech constitutional institutions, only 21% of Czechs trust the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of parliament), 25% trust the Senate and 28% trust the government. It should be mentioned that the data comes from September 2017, and that a parliamentary election was held in October 2017. Zeman is the most trusted element of the Czech machinery of state (51% support). Low trust in political representatives can create an explosive combination of conservative attitudes and traditionalist values, such as pro-Kremlin statements favouring conservative social attitudes mostly in the context of homosexuality, family and children. Those views stress the decadence, corruption and moral decline of Western civilisation. On the other hand, religious framing of those traditional views and statements does not work in the Czech Republic.
Although some measures have been taken in order to prevent the potential susceptibility of Czech society as a whole, the two target groups that are most affected are youngsters and older generations. Each group can be influenced for different reasons. Youngsters, even though very skilled in ICT, are still in the process of building up their critical thinking faculties and acquiring experiences, so they can easily fall into the trap of disinformation. On the other hand, older people`s vulnerability is caused by their insufficient ICT skills and lack of knowledge on the diversification of potential sources of information in virtual space. For both target groups, high trust in information from a close person or via email is of great significance. In the case of youngsters, this takes the form of sharing information via social networks, mostly Facebook. Among respondents aged between 55 and 64, 35% forward fake emails warning against danger (such as migration or Islam). Among those over 65, 47% forwarded such emails (four times more often than those age 35). This issue drew attention in the Czech Republic after the presidential election in January 2018, when email hoaxes with political and social content started to circulate in virtual space in order to support Zeman and Jiří Drahoš.
We should also mention that a certain number security force personnel, both at the educational level (i.e. professionals responsible for the education of security forces), and executive level (i.e. professionals on duty) are exposed to pro-Kremlin ideology, and some of them follow it, which implies direct risks for the Czech Republic’s national interests.
The Czech media landscape can be divided in two categories: public media (public television and public radio) and private media. Dominant is commercial television, which attracts about half of the total advertising spend, whereas newspapers are in the hands of local business tycoons. Online media (often online versions of TV, radio or printed newspapers) occupies a big part of the media space. Based on data from a 2016 Digital News Report about the Czech Republic, television has weekly access to 81% of respondents, radio reaches 35%, print media 34%, social media 51%, and online media in general 91%.
The level of trust in media is generally very low. According to an October 2017 survey, media in the Czech Republic are among the least trusted institutions in public life (30-35% depending on the type of media). A relatively steady decline in trust has been recorded in the last five to six years. The survey is conducted twice per year, and shows a visible decline in trust. Print media is in the worst position, with a level of trust at its lowest level since data started to be collected in 1995.
This low level of trust can be partially explained by the changes in ownership which affect major parts of the Czech print media sector. Local billionaires owning media are suspected of influencing the content, including using media for their own political career. One such is Andrej Babiš, prime minister at the time of writing (February 2018). According to Reporters Without Borders, the concentration of media ownership has reached critical level in the Czech Republic. In reaction to the situation, a law designed to combat conflicts of interest and prevent political players from owning media outlets was adopted in 2016. In the World Press Freedom Index, the Czech Republic takes 23rd position. In 2016, the country climbed two places, and in 2015 the country took the 13th place. A part of Czech society does not trust traditional/mainstream media because of the belief that they lie and manipulate public opinion (this is a common reason for declining trust in media across European countries). All in all, it is necessary to state that those media do not transmit pro-Kremlin ideas and propaganda.
However, experts agree that the level of trust in misinforming news outlets and channels has risen. In 2017, the Slovak non-governmental organization GLOBSEC Policy Institute carried out research on whether Czechs consider misinforming websites to be a relevant source of information, and how strongly the citizens trust them. The survey showed that 9% of Czechs do trust such media, while 49% of respondents do not believe the mainstream media. It is necessary to add that it is not obvious what the term ‘mainstream media’ means. According to the survey and in-depth interviews for the purposes of this research, it was identified that Russian media (RT and Sputnik, both with Czech language content) have very little popularity. Although RT has very low impact, Sputnik managed to influence public debates at the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine. Even in 2016, Sputnik was among the four most readable misinforming online media.
The most dangerous misinforming online media are believed to be conspiracy webpages which support Russian geopolitical views, pro-Kremlin ideas and propaganda, and threaten Czech security interests as defined in the Security Strategy of the Czech Republic. These are not directly linked to the Russian media landscape, and have no definable owner or financial structure. Such media provide a mix of factual and fake news, often anti-EU, anti-U.S., but pro-Russian only in very limited scope, all mixed with lifestyle reports. Such media provide political views and fuel the political emotions of those disappointed with the EU. With some exceptions, these websites do not have large audiences. Most relevant are AC24.cz, with 11 500 unique readers per day and Svět kolem nás (World around us) with 4 500 unique users per day. Online media outlet Parlamentní listy (Parliamentary sheets) exists in the grey zone. It does not spread pro-Kremlin disinformation on purpose. Without any editorial standards or control over authorship, everyone can publish their comments regardless of their factual basis. Parlamentní listy has around 150 000 readers each. For context, the most read media outlets have 1.5 million unique users per day. Although there is a limited number of users, these media outlets have great impact on readers who share the articles in social networks such as Facebook. Facebook campaigns are often based on misinforming links.
The danger of such media outlets can be illustrated with the recent and ongoing case of lithium. Shortly before the parliamentary election of 2017, pro-Kremlin media outlet Aeronet published fake news accusing Social Democrats of attempts to capitalise personally on lithium mining in the Czech Republic by selling it to an Australian company. Aeronet called for action in elections: do not vote for this party, but for far right and pro-Russian party Freedom and Direct Democracy. Within 24 hours, the article had been spread via 100 Facebook profiles. The topic became central to the serious political debate of Babiš, Zeman, Communists and Freedom, and Direct Democracy. A special parliamentary session was convened. The result of the election was also influenced. Every tenth voter to decide who to support in last month before the election changed their party preference under the influence of this case (and not in favour of the Social Democrats). The story about attempts to steal Czech national wealth did work.
Radio station Proglas
In the media sector, the private Christian radio station Proglas deserves attention as a good example. Even though it is a medium-sized radio station with limited budget from contributors, Proglas is aware of changes within media space. It notes the threat of disinformation and actively reacts to it. One of the ways to counteract it is to offer space to local editors and journalists for self-education, such as internships. As a reaction to the growing influence of disinformation, the radio station has employed two new editors for the news section. Proglas, as a member of the association of Christian media, also shares capacities and recorded material with associated media. Last but not the least, since Proglas possesses some webpages where news services can be found and comments of external collaborators are published, it is possible to evaluate the profiles of authors internally. This is a stricter process which enables online trolls to be identified.
The Crisis Law, based on the Cybersecurity Act, exists in order to ensure the protection of the Czech Republic’s critical information infrastructure. There is also the Law on the Protection of Classified Information. These laws serve to provide the infrastructure of information security. The Cybersecurity Act, the National Strategy on Cybersecurity, and the Action Plan provide a very good legal and implementation framework. The Czech Republic realises certain needs in this area, which are developed into the National Strategy and Action Plan. This is legal framework to enforce the implementation of the Action Plan.
The Cybersecurity Act regulates the rights and obligations of all players involved in cybersecurity in order to protect the functionality of cyberspace (i.e. providers and administrators of electronic communication, as well as state authorities) in general. The National Strategy on Cybersecurity focuses on the formulation of strategic goals and tasks to deepen and advance assurances of cybersecurity for the years 2015 to 2020. The stress is on cooperation between national players, international cooperation, cooperation with the private sector, and public education about cybersecurity. The Action Plan defines practical steps in order to reach the goals. For example, in the area of cooperation on the national level, the Action Plan defines such tasks as the development of a unified methodology of crisis management in the event of cyberattacks, and the development of a communication matrix for all involved. There is also ongoing preparation of legislation relevant for cyberdefence, which is in the competence of Military Intelligence under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence.
Otherwise, the legal environment for the state authorities is framed by laws defining competences for ministries and other executive players. According to experts interviewed in the course of this study, the definition of these competences is sufficient. On the other hand, it is obvious that the legal framework does not cover all aspects of information security, failing in areas such as disinformation and propaganda. Protection against and reaction to disinformation is in the competence of all executive players, based on the content and target group of a given campaign. Disinformation campaigns are therefore not directly covered by the Czech Penal Code. But, for the experts who took part in this study, it is questionable whether it is necessary to further regulate the sensitive area of freedom of speech and expression:
‘We can very easily get in conflict between freedom of speech and protection against abusing freedom of speech’.
Repression is generally understood as a last possible resort. In relation to disinformation campaigns, there is no existing legislation.
As for the regulatory framework for media, prohibition of harmful content, typically racism, is relevant. For radio and TV broadcasting, the Council of the Czech Republic for Radio and TV Broadcasting is the regulatory and executive body. The Council decides who will get broadcasting licences, and is responsible for monitoring broadcast content. If principles and regulations are broken, the Council can decide about fines and other sanctions. The Council is more focused on monitoring balance in broadcasting, and it is not known whether it has any measures in place to deal with disinformation in the media.
For print media, the Syndicate of Journalists binds its members to follow a code of ethics, but there are no tools to enforce this code. A member who does break it can be expelled from the Syndicate.
Generally speaking, the lead body in this respect is the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic which holds the position as a result of its constitutional position as the highest executive body. The government manages, controls and unifies the activities of the ministries, the competences of which are defined by law.
The National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NCISA) serves as the national authority for ensuring the protection of information systems. As the national authority, it provides cybersecurity, consisting of integrity, availability and protection of information in the critical information infrastructure. NCISA’s activities are governed by the National Cybersecurity Strategy of the Czech Republic for the period 2015 to 2020 and the Action Plan on the National Cybersecurity Strategy of the Czech Republic. NCISA is also responsible for fulfilment of the Action Plan (together with the ministries of the interior and foreign affairs, and the intelligence services), and is obliged to report annually on the state of the Action Plan.
‘The Czech Republic is intensively engaged in ensuring the protection of critical information infrastructure with the right tools in place. The level of critical information infrastructure protection is at a high level. However, given that it is a very progressive environment in terms of the development and transformation of threats, it is necessary to develop constantly, so the Czech Republic will be able to respond to any new threats’.
The protection of information itself partly stems from the Security Strategy of the Czech Republic and from the National Security Audit and its action plan.
‘The National Security Audit was initiated in 2015, in context of events in Ukraine, and with the emerging awareness that the Czech Republic has also been facing hybrid threats’.
The audit identifies 10 threats to the security of the Czech Republic, including hybrid threats, threats in cyberspace and the influence of foreign powers. The audit also identifies competent players, and evaluates relevant strategies and legislation. The Action Plan, reflecting the findings of the audit, contains tasks to be fulfilled. One of them is to establish teams/units at all relevant institutions which will be responsible for evaluating misinformation campaigns and other forms of influence from foreign powers. This is followed up by the principle that each ministry is responsible for its own reaction to misinformation campaigns, depending on the interests promoted or obstructed by the campaign in question. Thus, the Ministry of Interior Affairs established the Centre against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats.
The Centre against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats started to operate from January 1, 2017. It serves as a specialised analytical and communication unit. It monitors threats directly related to internal security, including those related to terrorism, soft target attacks, security aspects of migration, extremism, public gatherings, violations of public order, and misinformation campaigns related to internal security. Its task is also to disseminate information and spread awareness about the relevant issues among the general and professional public.
Other ministries should also establish units responsible for analysing hybrid threats and misinformation campaigns, but this is still a work process. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there is a unit responsible for strategic communication. The Ministry of Defence is currently the national authority in charge of countering hybrid threats and their influence on the security of the Czech Republic. Based on an interview with experts, it may be said that information security is currently limited to technical protection of the information itself, even though the Ministry of Defence is responsible for the protection of the country against external threats including those arising from foreign influence via misinformation.
The experts interviewed as part of this study agree that there are big gaps in Czech information security policy. First is the poor quality of strategic communication of the country. The Czech Republic is aware of what kind of infrastructure needs to be protected, but it is not active or effective in the formulation of its own national interpretation of history and ideology. Strategic communication is missing, is not related to content, and is very often incorrectly understood as public relations. A functional coordinating mechanism between relevant players is also absent, as reflected in the current Action Plan of the National Strategy of Cybersecurity, which defines the requirement for the development of a communication matrix for the relevant players. To fill this gap, it is also necessary to build a government-level functional coordination group to collect relevant information from all areas and issue decisions and recommendations.
Digital debunking teams
In the last couple of years, a few projects and initiatives have been established in reaction to threats to information security and the resilience of Czech society in the context of misinformation campaigns. In the area of fact-checking initiatives, it is necessary to mention the leading project‘Demagog’. This project is not focused on dealing with misinformation campaigns in the sense of orchestrated influence from abroad, rather its primary goal is to debunk false statements of politicians and other public figures. ‘Demagog’ teaches the public to think critically about information provided by anybody, and helps to raise awareness about the fact that misinformation can be used in public space.
The project StopFake.org offers a Czech version of an internationally recognised initiative. The main goal is to debunk myths and fact-check information related to events in Ukraine. Journalists help to uncover fake news and explain the real situation. Lots of texts are translated from foreign StopFake.org branches, but the website also serves as a platform for analysis of pro-Kremlin propaganda in all its aspects and manifestations. The influence of propaganda in terms of Ukraine is also monitored because of its impact on policies in Turkey and EU countries.
Hoax.cz focuses only on hoaxes circulating in virtual space. The aim of the project is to inform about something that has become an everyday part of Czech people’s lives. The website has a database of the most common hoaxes and is regularly updated. Any hoax is always followed by an expert explanation of what is wrong with the content.
Manipulátoři.cz (Manipulators) is also focused on hoaxes. The webpage is dedicated to publishing articles which cover issues from such areas as political marketing, public relations, and communication. Some sections are dedicated to the issue of hoaxes. There is a database of hoaxes with debunking and factual explanations. The initiative places stress on correct work with data, and shows that informing society can be based on quality articles. So, it is not only about debunking; the greater part of the initiative is focused on media literacy and support for critical thinking.
Stop fake hackathon
An interesting attempt to involve the private sector in countering disinformation and fake news happened in January 2018, when the private IT company Ackee, together with the Endowment Fund for Independent Journalism and the Open Society Fund, organised a hackathon named FakeHacks. During the 24-hour event, IT developers in cooperation with data analysts, designers, and journalists worked in teams to develop applications which would help deal with disinformation. The competitors were able to develop applications which could verify and support the validity of information and sources, and those to identify Twitter bots and fake social network profiles.
Media literacy projects
With the rise in disinformation campaigns, the need for media literacy programmes and the reflection of such issues in education in general have have also grown.
‘During the survey of 2016, we have found out that three quarters of respondents between the ages of 15 and 19 obtain information from articles shared by friends on Facebook. Almost 20% of them do not think about the real source of such information’.
That’s according to one of the experts interviewed in the course of this research. Radka Pudilová, from the Open Society Fund, understands the importance of media literacy and education in general as a means of increasing society’s resilience. On the other hand, she points out that, unfortunately, non-governmental organisations use the same tools and ideas. They also mostly work with people in bigger cities and do not go to regions.
The Project Zvol si info (Choose for the information) was initiated by students of Masaryk University in 2016, and is aimed mainly at high school students. During workshops, lecturers talk with students about techniques of manipulation and propaganda, show examples, and train students in media literacy.
‘Our strategy is based on neutrality. We focus on the technical aspect of manipulation in order not to lose contact with some parts of society’.
One of the outcomes of the project is the Surfer`s Guide to the Internet, which serves as simple educational toolkit with five basic rules for recognising manipulation. At the beginning of 2018, the ‘The best book about fake news, misinformation, and manipulation’ was published; it is aimed at the general public and intends to show how disinformation works and why.
Another important project is Jeden svět na školách (One world in schools), which is run by the non-governmental organisation People in Need. Since 2001, this project has been providing educational materials to teachers, mostly covering issues of civic education. One part is also dedicated to media literacy. Teachers can use more than 20 audio-visuals, ready to use lessons prepared by project lecturers. These lessons are tailored for pupils and students of elementary and secondary/high schools. Analysis of media literacy at Czech high schools was introduced as a part of the project.
An association of education professionals
Compulsory education professionals have organised themselves into an association called Občankáři in order to change the way media literacy education is provided. They express dissatisfaction with the way state educational concepts and strategies deal with education in the Czech Republic. The association was founded as a reaction to a reduction in national self-consciousness and the ability to orientate to contemporary social events among students of all types of schools. The association focuses on empowering teachers, on their professional development, and on opening cooperation between schools and teachers. There is a website where teachers can find a broad range of educational materials, including media literacy.
Based on analysis of the situation and in-depth interviews, several recommendations for the state authorities and media community can be made:
- The Action Plan of the Audit of national security should be fulfilled. Each ministry should create an analytical team/unit responsible for hybrid threats relevant for the area of their competences. At the same time, it is necessary to set up a functional coordination mechanism at the governmental level. The state/government needs to see hybrid threats as a complex issue. Orchestrated misinformation campaigns and operations aimed to influence society are the business of all ministries. Without having a complex picture, counter-measures will never be sufficient.
- Relevant state bodies should create strategic communication and separate this from public relations. A positive Czech national ideology should be developed.
- State authorities should involve the private sector in fostering society’s resilience information security, e.g. through private bodies and professionals from the IT and marketing sectors.
- Public figures (politicians and cultural/media icons) should take up the theme of resilience and information security, and work on it with devotion. Then it will truly resonate in society.
- All involved players and activists should prevent deepening polarisation of Czech society. Issues related to information security should be communicated and explained. Labelling and stereotyping should be excluded from public discussions. Discussions often end with a false dilemma, putting the issue in a black and white perspective of ‘us’ versus them, and ‘them’ are labelled with a simplifying sticker which only deepens polarisation. But many issues grow from misunderstanding and lack of information. Media literacy was long absent from the education system of the Czech Republic, so it is wrong to only criticise those orienting themselves to pro-Kremlin ideology. Attitudes and opinions should be deconstructed in order to avoid clichés.