The Russian disinformation campaigns are presented in the information media in every European country. The Czech Republic is not an exception. After February 2022, the Russian propaganda, as expected, actively took up the justification of aggression and discrediting Ukraine. However, the Russian Federation was spreading disinformation about Ukraine long before the full-scale invasion. In this article, we analyze how the Russian rhetoric has been changing in the Czech media from 2014 till 2022 years.
The imagination about the Czech media market and the presence of pro-Russian media in it allowed the research by the Czech Foundation "Independent Journalism Foundation" (Nadační fond nezávlislé žurnalistiky, NFNZ). NFNZ has typologized the sources of Czech news for the similarity of the audience, the structure of attendance, and the contents and has suggested the division of the Czech media market on the three conditional clusters, which are shown in pic. 1.
The infographic «Typology of Domestic News Websites in the Czech Republic»
The green color represents tabloids, which are entertainment media. Blue highlights the primary news websites covering a wide range of topics. Moving to the left and up, you find media with a distinct political orientation, ranging from smaller projects focusing on analytical and investigative articles to media groups and news agencies. Websites marked in red work for an audience with a pronounced anti-system orientation, including pro-Russian ones. Official blocking of several pro-Russian media, including Protiproud.cz, occurred on February 5, 2022, by the CZ.NIC association, but on May 25, 2022, CZ.NIC again granted users access to all websites.
Based on the NFNZ research results and the Propaganda Diary database, we selected the six most active "red" media outlets that systematically spread disinformation about Ukraine. The main selection criterion was the frequency of pro-Russian publications in 2022. Archive data were used for retrospective analysis. We reviewed all articles from the media shown in Fig. 2 and conducted a detailed analysis of those articles about Ukraine that contained fake information. We found a total of 214 such articles.
In every publication we have highlighted individual fakes that corresponded to the pro-Russian narratives identified in the Propaganda Diary study. As a rule, one publication contains several fakes that correspond to different narratives.
In the six most active pro-Russian Czech media, we found 20 pro-Russian narratives and 325 individual disinformation cases (fakes).
The most common are fakes about Nazism, the Revolution of Dignity and the justification of Russian aggression. It is noteworthy that the intensity of the spread of propaganda falls precisely during the period of Russia's active hostilities in Ukraine: the most actively pro-Russian fakes were published in 2014 and 2022. It is also interesting that the narrative that the Revolution of Dignity was a coup d'etat and led to a civil war is quite common throughout the analyzed period, unlike others. This is probably due to the fact that Russia has often mentioned the events of the Revolution of Dignity as an excuse for its actions since 2014.
Note. The vertical axis represents the number of fake narratives on a specific topic found in the materials of the six most active pro-Russian Czech media outlets.
Now, let's take a closer look at each of the six media outlets we analyzed:
Sputník Česká republika
Sputnik Česká republika is a news portal that is part of the Russian media conglomerate "Russia Today." Sputnik Česká republika emerged as the successor to the restructured radio station "Hlas Ruska" in 2014. After the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, several European countries, including the Czech Republic, restricted or completely blocked access to this resource due to its recognized propagandist orientation.
The analyzed materials published from 2014 to 2016 contained an average of 3-4 Russian narratives in one article. For example, in an article from March 8, 2015, about the Revolution of Dignity, it was claimed that Ukraine is not a democratic state, that the Ukrainian government is a "puppet" of the United States, and that allies supposedly planned to divide the territory of Ukraine in the future. The article also mentioned historical events, such as the Orange Revolution, asserting that "the United States not only provoked the Russian-Ukrainian war but also financed the protesters on the Maidan".
However, from 2017 to 2021, we noticed a change in editorial policy. There were fewer different narratives in one article, with authors typically limiting themselves to mentioning one or two and completely changing their content. For example, they began to write more about the failures of Ukrainian reforms and the "undemocratic" nature of Ukraine. They also wrote about the alleged restrictions on the Russian language. For instance, in a publication from January 27, 2017, it was claimed that the ban on selling books in the Russian language is a limitation of pluralism of opinions. After the start of the full-scale invasion, the publications again started combining more narratives. For example, in an article about combat operations near Snihurivka in the Kherson region dated November 9, 2022, the authors wrote about the "demilitarization of Ukraine," aimed at protecting the civilian population. The article attributed the reason for its onset to the external policy of the United States, which supposedly influenced the Revolution of Dignity and subsequent developments in Ukrainian state-building.
Ivan David is a Czech psychiatrist and former politician associated with the right-wing radical party "Česká strana sociálně demokratická" (ČSSD). He served as the Minister of Health of the Czech Republic from 1998 to 1999. In 2019, Ivan David joined the right-wing radical and Eurosceptic party "Svoboda a přímá demokracie - Národní strana" (SPD). He also served as a Member of the European Parliament for this party. In 2019, the Ministry of Interior of the Czech Republic accused the SPD party of spreading hate and fear in society through disinformation and conspiracy theories.
In one of his publications dated March 18, 2022, David refers to the "Revolution of Dignity" (Euromaidan) as a "state coup" allegedly organized with the assistance of the United States. He also writes about the "historical kinship of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples".
Rostislav Ishchenko is a Russian political analyst and journalist of Ukrainian origin. He is associated with the Russian propaganda channel RIA Novosti and the website Ukraine.ru. Following the start of a full-scale invasion, in one of his interviews from December 16, 2022, for the radio "Komsomolskaya Pravda," he expressed the opinion that Ukraine and the Ukrainian language should cease to exist: "I say again, we need the Ukrainian language and Ukraine, and everything associated with them, to be forgotten like a terrible dream." For example, in an article from March 17, 2022, authored by Ishchenko, there is a narrative that Ukraine's and the West's actions forced Russia to start the war.
CzechFreePress is a media outlet primarily known for publishing commentaries and opinion columns. The chief editor is Miroslav Sujа, a Slovak politician and entrepreneur who gained prominence after splashing water on the Minister of Finance and being detained for bribery in August 2021. Other members of the editorial team remain anonymous, and the "About CFP" section lacks information about the individuals who run the project, their educational backgrounds, or professional experience.
This media outlet was most active in publishing articles from 2014 to 2016. During that time, the most prevalent narrative was the alleged existence of Nazism in Ukraine. Such fake stories were present in 18 out of 57 analyzed articles.
From 2017 to 2021, we did not observe publications that contained disinformation about Ukraine (in general, this media outlet rarely mentioned Ukraine during this time). This is likely due to a shift in the media's policy, as the main topics during this period were the migration crisis in Europe related to illegal migrants from the Middle East and the war in Afghanistan.
In 2022, the focus of CzechFreePress changed, with the most frequent articles centering on the alleged intentions of Western states to divide Ukrainian territory among themselves. For example, in an article from May 9, 2022, the media claimed that Poland was planning to occupy part of Ukraine.
From 2014 to 2022, this media outlet primarily propagated fake news about supposed Nazism in Ukraine. In an article dated February 19, 2015, we first noticed a narrative among Czech media about the so-called "black transplantology" in Ukraine. The author of the article claims that "modern neo-Nazis" (referring to the Right Sector) carry out attacks that result in the deaths of hundreds of civilians whose bodies are found without internal organs.
První zprávy.cz published articles from other sources, often featuring interviews and quoting various questionable experts. For example, in a publication from December 19, 2022, they quoted the editor of "The American Conservative" magazine, Ted Carpenter. He stated, "This country (Ukraine) did not deserve the title of 'democracy' even before the start of the Russian special operation. With the onset of the conflict, Kyiv resorted to systematic repression. Modern Ukraine is a country that is too corrupt and is becoming increasingly authoritarian. This is not democracy in the freest sense of the word." Carpenter's statement contains several narratives: Ukraine's lack of democracy (repression and authoritarianism) and the discrediting of Ukrainian authorities. By emphasizing corruption, the authors create the impression that Ukraine should not be supported because the funds provided allegedly won't be used for their intended purposes.
This media outlet also quoted Russian political analyst and president of the "Institute of the Near East," Yevgeny Satanovsky. In an article from May 23, 2022, commenting on Ukraine's cooperation with Poland, he claimed that the goal of Ukraine's allies is the division of its territory in the future.
Founded in 2013 by Petr Hájek, a former press secretary of the Czech President Václav Klaus, ProtiProud asserts that the concept of the New World Order truthfully describes the current political situation. According to this concept, a global elite purportedly intends to establish control over world events and influence them. Typically, this elite is associated with the United States and the European Union. Within the context of Ukraine, they propagate a narrative that the West controls Ukraine and uses it for its own purposes.
In 2014, this media outlet attempted to depict the Euromaidan movement (Revolution of Dignity) as a result of financial influence from the United States. In an article dated February 18, 2015, ProtiProud claimed that NATO forces were involved in military actions during the defense of Debaltseve.
In an article from July 14, 2023, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky is referred to as a "puppet" and it is claimed that he acts in the interests of the United States.
This media outlet does not provide any information about its owners and authors. Additionally, they state on their website that they do not collect information about the authors of articles and website users, nor do they provide information to EU or Czech authorities. Disinformation about Ukraine on this portal was only observed in 2022. Similar to the První zprávy.cz portal, CZ.24News discusses the alleged existence of "black transplantology" in Ukraine. For instance, in an article dated February 26, 2022, the authors claim that "mobile crematoria" operates in Ukraine, and medical workers are purportedly involved in illegal organ trafficking, using international humanitarian organizations as cover.
Russian propaganda has found its way into the Czech information space through various local media outlets that publish works by Russian authors and quote pro-Russian experts. Blocking the work of "Russia Today" (Sputnik Česká republika) was a positive step, but in the face of increased activity by other media outlets, it did not significantly impact the overall quantity of disinformation. Czech media outlets often justify Russian aggression, a trend observed in both 2014 and 2022. The most popular argument is that the Euromaidan movement was supposedly a Western-led state coup, which subsequently became a catalyst for a civil war. As a result, Russia had to intervene to protect "its" population. References to Ukrainian "Nazis" and an authoritarian "Kyiv regime" are also common in this context.
The author: Vitalina Shelefeta — UDONATION Scholar, Guest Paper for ADASTRA.