Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Business booming in Czech fake news industry

  • President Zeman (l) and Putin (r). A 2016 survey counted around 40 websites in the Czech Republic that regularly published pro-Russian narratives. (Photo: kremlin.ru)

As the forces loyal to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan were battling the attempted coup in July 2016, Czech president Milos Zeman was following the dramatic developments on TV.

However, Zeman did not choose a mainstream channel to find out what was going on.

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His spokesman posted a photo on Twitter that showed Zeman watching RT, the international television network funded by the Russian government. RT stands accused by numerous critics of spreading Russian propaganda.

In the Czech Republic, this did not raise many eyebrows. Zeman is a well-known supporter of the so-called alternative media – a media environment that is well-developed in the country.

A survey from June 2016 counted around 40 websites in the Czech Republic that regularly published pro-Russian and/or conspiracy narratives.

The most successful of them, Parlamentni listy (Parliamentary Letters), has more than 600,000 monthly readers – in a country of 10 million people.

Zeman has already given 40 interviews to the website.

“He is the most important ally of this media scene,” Jakub Janda, deputy director of the European Values think tank, who studies the so-called alternative media in Central Europe, told EUobserver. “He legitimises their work.”

He noted that while US president Donald Trump uses Twitter "to bypass the traditional media, Zeman uses the alternative media, which often spreads disinformation or conspiracy theories," to reach the public.

According to the 2016 survey, 25 percent of Czechs trust the alternative media more than the mainstream media. This has some effect, as, for instance, more than 30 percent of Czechs believe that Ukraine is governed by fascists.

Czech pro-Russian websites have managed to create a functioning business model.

Our Media – the biggest alternative media group, and includes Parlamentni listy and other websites like Protiproud (Countercurrent) or EUPortal – is owned by a billionaire senator, Ivo Valenta, who recently struck an electoral alliance with the right-wing Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which has been in government most years after 1989.

The ownership structure of other pro-Russian websites, such as Aeronet, remains unclear, but it has never been established whether any of the alternative media outlets receive any financial support from Russia.

One of these websites, Ac24, started as a typical conspiracy and fake news outlet – publishing 9/11 conspiracy theories, for example. But following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, it enthusiastically repeated pro-Kremlin propaganda.

Its owner, Ondrej Gersl, a little-known businessman, claims that the outlet is profitable thanks to advertising. In interviews he has given to Czech media, he appears to sincerely believe in what he publishes.

“Those people are doing it out of conviction. Besides, according to what we know, it is not a loss-making business,” Janda noted.

Influencing public debate

In neighbouring Slovakia, an initiative called Konspiratori.sk (the Conspirators), launched by a private citizen working for an advertising agency, managed to convince many companies to pull down advertisements from dubious websites.

But in the Czech Republic, no such initiative has succeeded.

The alternative media, like Parlamentni listy, is much more powerful in the Czech Republic and has threatened to sue companies that want to cancel their advertisements.

The fact that the alternative media has no shortage of income from advertisements is, according to Janda, one reason for them being considerably more successful than elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe.

As a result, the Czech Republic is often a starting point for fake news that will be repeated by other media outlets, in Russian and in other languages in Europe.

The influence of websites that are supportive of the Russian narrative is considered a threat by the Security Information Service (BIS), the Czech domestic intelligence agency.

In its annual report from last year, the BIS pointed out that Russia was trying to influence the public debate and limit Czech policy options.

“For foreign minister Lubomir Zaoralek, it is difficult to publicly support Ukraine when a considerable part of the electorate and even the membership of his own Social-Democratic Party believes that Ukraine is governed by fascists,” said Janda.

Last year, the interior ministry set up the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, a unit whose task, among others, is to inform the public in cases of serious disinformation.

Its work has been regularly criticised by Zeman.

No mainstream

Some critics believe that the secret service or mainstream media could do more to investigate the activities and funding of the pro-Russian websites.

This view is shared by Ondrej Kundra, an investigative journalist at Respekt weekly and the author of a book on Russian influence in the Czech Republic.

However, Kundra points out that one should not, at the same time, exaggerate the influence of this media scene.

“It is true that 25 percent of people believe this propaganda. This is not a small number. But the pro-Russian media have not succeeded in their effort to turn their views into the mainstream, although they are trying very hard.”

Kundra stresses that pro-Kremlin propaganda remains confined to the alternative media scene and has not spread to traditional media. Thus, he says, pro-Russian propagandists have not divided society.

Both Janda and Kundra nevertheless expect massive support from the alternative media scene for president Zeman in the upcoming Czech presidential election, which takes place in early 2018.

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