7. Nov 2016  |  Strategic Communication  |  Central Europe

GLOBSEC Policy Institute’s bi-weekly overview of conventional and social media discourse in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia monitors propaganda and disinformation attempts, as well as democratic responses in the on-going information war, in order to increase awareness about this recently emerged challenge and promote fact-based discussion in Central Europe.

In the second half of October 2016 the foreign hostile influence of disinformation and propaganda being disseminated in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia addressed the US presidential elections, but also alleged interfering of the United States in the domestic affairs of Central European countries. Therefore, the topics that resonated the most in Central Europe are the following:

  • NATO countries conspiring against Russia 
  • Coups and the color revolutions occuring in Central Europe
  • Illiberal measures of Western institutions

NATO countries conspiring against Russia

The alternative media in Central Europe spreading pro-Russian disinformation have tried to convey two different narratives. The first narrative claimed that NATO gathering and training of units in the Baltics was a threat to Russia. Hungarian fringe media interpreted the transfer of Hungarian military officers to Bucharest as aggression against Russia. The web portal Hídfő reported that NATO was further increasing its presence in the Baltic States and as a first sign of that, the UK would send drones and Challenger II tanks to Estonia. Another outlet wrote about Canada’s planed contribution, which would send almost 500 soldiers, fighter jets and battleships to Latvia – allegedly would support preparations for offensive. On contrary, these media outlets were informing that the Russian Federation did not pose any threat to the Baltic States, while “NATO was marching to the Russian borders”. NATO’s policies were supposedly the result of misinterpreting Vladimir Putin’s policies - Putin wants to get back territories where Russians live, but nothing more.

Furthermore, along the hostile NATO narrative, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been conspiring against Russia and it was manipulating its members into hostile attitudes towards the Russian Federation. According to disinformation portals in Central Europe, NATO blackmailed Spain to deny Russian fleet the opportunity to refuel on Spanish territory on its way to Syria, and so Spain was proclaimed to be a subordinated country not sovereign anymore. Fringe media also provided their (own) “findings” for the Human Rights Watch’s call for investigation of the bombings and attacks on the city of Daquq. Several outlets immediately cited  Russian Minister of Defense, Igor Konašenkov, who declared the United States with its coalition attacked a funeral procession killing civilians and children and consequently committing war crimes. 

(Source: www.vilaglato.info "I'll easily destroy NATO")

The second narrative spread by the pro-Kremlin media was that while NATO might be mobilizing its forces, it is still weak, divided and in case of declaration of war against the Russian Federation it would not stand a chance. The Russian Federation would easily beat NATO, wrote an article referring to “experts”. A  Hungarian far-left party also warned that Hungary would be the first to be destroyed in a Russia-NATO war. Preparedness of Russia and its citizens on war was demonstrated by a video of students assembling and disassembling AK-74 as part of their school curriculum.  According to one Slovak article, Russian children were being preparing for war by training in various centers supervised by the Russian student movement. The article further pointed out that the Kremlin has even a specialized governmental program - the “Patriotic education of Russian citizens in the years 2016 – 2020”.

While Russia is spreading disinformation that it is being threaten and it is only defending itself against the hostile plans of NATO and the United States, the facts say completely different story. In March 2014 Russia invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea and Sevastopol. In 2014 Estonian police officer was abducted on Estonian territory by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation and taken to Russia. In December 2014 Russian military aircraft had a close to collision incident with commercial passenger while flying over southern Sweden. Similar incident happened also this year, in April 2016, when Russian jets flew only within the distance of 30 feet of the US naval ship sailing in the Baltic sea. It is also important to mention the crash of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, killing all 298 people on board, which travelled over conflict-hit Ukraine on 17 July 2014 when it disappeared from radar. The Dutch-led joint investigation team (JIT) came to conclusion that a Buk 9M38 missile had been fired from a village under the control of pro-Russia rebels. In addition, the “peaceful activities of the Russian Federation in the world in October were nicely summarized in the infographic published by the Strategic Communication Group of the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

(Source: The Strategic Communication Group of the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Furthermore, from the picture below, it is also possible to see the huge difference in the scale of Russian and NATO military exercises. While NATO or NATO member countries have had regular small scale military exercises, with maximum of 36 000 soldiers participating, Russian military exercises have often involved more than 100 000 soldiers. 

(Source: Twitter)

Coups and the color revolutions occurring in Central Europe

The pro-Russian fringe media in Central European region spread disinformation about several important historical events of Central European countries. In Hungary, fringe media reported on the Russian state TV’s claim that the 1956 revolution in Hungary was organized by the CIA or they wrote that the conflict was turned bloody by Western promises. Instead of rejecting Russian claims, fringe media shared a quote from Vladimir Putin from year 2000, when he said “it was a grave mistake” to intervene in Hungary in 1956 and that it was the cause of Russo-phobia today. One fringe site attested that Hungarian revolutionaries originally planned a “clean” revolution, which the United States used to encourage Hungarians to fight by telling them that the West will help them, which led to the death of thousands of Hungarians and Russian common soldiers. Another Hungarian media blamed the US for the dissolution of the USSR as well, which lead to a power vacuum in Central Europe. Furthermore, a protest on the 17th October in Hungary against the suspension of left-wing daily Népszabadság and corruption was labelled in one article as a new Maidan revolution, which was being organized by the United States.

Similar tendency to label a peaceful democratic protest against the actions of the President, among other things, as Maidan organized by the United States, the US Secret Service and George Soros, occurred in the Czech Republic. A protest at the Old Town Square, which was organized on the Independent Czechoslovak State Proclamation Day on the 28th October, was described as possible coup d’état and another color revolution. In addition, Sputnik speculated when the “Czech Maidan” could be launched. These distorting speculations were linked to recent Dalai Lama’s visit in Prague. According to fringe media, the Czech Minister of Culture, who officially met with Dalai Lama, was plotting against the President Zeman and organizing a media campaign in order to destroy the Czech President’s image in the media.

The propaganda of Russian Federation has a tendency to interpret historical events according to its narratives. Russian TV documentary about the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia completely distorted historical events and depicted Soviet invasion as a defense alliance protecting socialist countries against NATO. Similar tendencies are possible to observe with the 1956 revolution in Hungary. However, the historical records of bloody clashes and dead people can’t be distorted.

Illiberal measures of Western institutions

The anti-Western disinformation spread by the pro-Kremlin alternative media in Central Europe focused on variety of issues. Hungarian mainstream media reported that Russia Today’s bank accounts were frozen in the United Kingdom, which the British NatWest bank claimed was false information. Despite of that, fringe media claimed that there was no freedom of speech in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Germany was supposed to introduce stricter media censorship along the lines of liberal dogmas.

On the other hand,  the Czech public television faced several unfounded attacks from fringe media for allegedly supporting of certain political parties and trying to influence the outcomes of regional elections. One of the most popular pro-Kremlin websites also complained about the Czech mainstream media because they allegedly ignored the march of nationalist and far-right supporters in Kiev and provided a bias picture about the situation in Ukraine. According to the pro-Kremlin propaganda, the importance of controlling the media for the West is that they use it to manipulate people. The media, all in all, has a role in artificially generating anti-government feelings and the destabilization of the country which could lead to colored revolutions.   

In addition, the decision of the Ministry of Interior of the Czech Republic to establish a new specialized unit focusing on hybrid threats and monitoring of the disinformation infuriated Czech and Slovak pro-Kremlin outlets. Several of them reported that the new department is going to prosecute people with opposite views and politically incorrect opinions. Censorship and deleting content from the Internet were according to fringe media measures resembling the practices of communist apparatus. Everybody with different “realistic” world views was labeled by mainstream media as a “Russian agent”.

Western countries, institutions and media are constantly attacked by the disinformation outlets for their impartiality, inaccuracy and manipulations. Western media is, according to the pro-Russian propaganda, suspending independent voices. Oddly, they forget to mention how the state apparatus of the Russian Federation controls almost every media outlet in Russia, doing Putin’s bidding. The activities of the pro-Russian media in Central and Eastern Europe are the ones that spread disinformation and are aimed to destabilize certain countries.

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Edited by Katarína Klingová, GLOBSEC Policy Institute; Daniel Milo, senior fellow at GLOBSEC Policy Institute; Veronika Víchová, analyst of Kremlin Watch Program, European Values Think-Tank; Lóránt Györi, Political Capital Institute; Patrik Szicherle, Political Capital Institute. This document was published in the framework of projects run by the GLOBSEC Policy Institute and supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. 

©  GLOBSEC Policy Institute

The opinions stated in this report do not necessarily represent the position or views of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute or the National Endowment for Democracy. Responsibility for the information and views expressed therein lies entirely with the authors.