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The Explainable Rise of Czech Fake News

This article was originally published by Coda Story.

By Michael Colborne

Last year, a 52-year-old Czech IT specialist called Radek Koten shared an inflammatory post from a pro-Russian website which attacked mandatory vaccinations. “Cancerous enzymes” had been found in vaccine compounds, according to the article he shared (see below), and the doctors who made the discovery had all been “murdered.” Over the past year, he has also decorated his Facebook wall with claims that the 9/11 attacks were a CIA plot and that the United States wants to liquidate the Slavic race.

If Koten (pictured) was just another Czech citizen with a penchant for conspiracy theories from pro-Kremlin sites, his posts would not have attracted much notice. But he has vaulted to national prominence in the last few months, after first being elected as an MP for the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) and then going one better by becoming head of the Czech parliament’s powerful security committee.

It means that a man with an appetite for fake news now has a role in combating it, as one of his responsibilities is working closely with Czech intelligence services and the Czech government’s efforts to fight disinformation. And the pro-Russian websites that he has promoted are celebrating his rise. But his breakthrough is also testament to the country’s deepening political divisions, observers say, with its controversial new prime minister accused of empowering fringe parties like the SPD to stay in power.

One pro-EU MP called Koten’s appointment a “security risk.” Another commented on his refusal to say whether the Czech Republic should remain in the EU or or NATO, saying “it made him sick.” The “security committee isn’t a toy,” warned Milan Chovanec, the interior minister in the previous government, when he first heard that it could be handed to the SPD. “We’re in a situation when Europe is not safe.”

For his part, Koten says the controversy around him has been “created and inflated by the media.” He was not the only person managing his social media accounts, the new MP claimed, as he dismissed concerns about his past internet posts.

He denies any ties to Russia, but he has defended the growing audience for pro-Russian websites. “If Czech Television or any other TV channel was informing people in a balanced way about the presidential elections in America, or about the conflict in Ukraine,” he said pointedly, “then I think people wouldn’t need to find other sources of media.” Koten didn’t reply to requests for comment.

His new job may not have the same clout as a minister, but it still gives him some power and influence. The committee he now chairs is responsible for developing legislation and policies on security matters, giving him a say in relations with the EU and the wider West, as well as with Russia. He will also be working with Czech intelligence services.

Most of the criticism over Koten’s rise, though, is being aimed at the new prime minister, Andrej Babis. A brash billionaire tycoon who has been described as a blend of Donald Trump and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, he is also facing charges of trying to defraud the EU before he won office. He and his ANO party (which translates as “Union of Dissatisfied Citizens” and spells “yes” in Czech) won the largest number of seats in the October election—about a third of the total. But so far none of the major parties are willing to form a coalition with him because of those charges.

Babis is trying to rule at the head of a minority government instead. But to survive, some suspect he has struck secret deals with Koten’s party, the SPD, and the pro-Kremlin Communists—the successor to the pro-Soviet party ejected from power in 1989.

The billionaire prime minister denies doing any deal. But nobody missed the fact that his party has supported both the SPD and the Communists in their push to win some important committee chairs. And all three parties joined together to back Koten when parliament voted on his confirmation. The irony is that no one believes that Babis is either soft on disinformation, or particularly pro-Russian.

But Koten’s elevation has further poisoned an already toxic political climate as the country prepares for presidential elections next month. The incumbent, Milos Zeman is himself seen as a polarizing figure, having been accused of stirring Islamophobia. One of his opponents, Jiri Drahos, has made Koten’s appointment a campaign issue, arguing that it “severely undermines” the Czech Republic’s democratic foundations.

For now Koten himself is acting like a model politician, acceding to a request from his fellow parliamentarians to undergo a background check. “I have nothing to hide,” he says. And some believe that parliament and other Czech institutions will be able to keep Koten and his supporters in check. But, well aware of the historical precedents, many politicians are deeply worried that extremists have been allowed to gain a foothold inside the Czech state.

The pro-Russian websites sites that have backed Koten have no doubt about the importance of this moment. Aeronet, one of Koten’s favorites, recently published an editorial lauding his appointment. The “allergic reaction” of the Prague-based political class, it said, proved that he was the right man for the job. Written by the site’s anonymous editor-in-chief, the piece even called on the Koten-led security committee to “monitor” the Czech intelligence services, so that they focus on what it called the real threats to the country, the nonprofit sector and foreign NGOs.

The headline on the editorial read: “Victory is ours.”

*****

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Michael Colborne is a journalist based in Prague. 

[Photo courtesy of Max Pixel]

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