Dissecting Pro-China Bias in Czech Alternative Media
Media represent a crucial tool for providing frameworks for general interpretation and understanding of events and the dissemination of information. Thus, media not only report about social reality, but they help to shape our view of reality. Especially on remote subjects, detached from personal experience of the reader, such as the news from distant countries, the audience relies on impartial and factual reporting of media. Not surprisingly, given the role of media as shapers of local perceptions, various actors, starting with political and economic elites and ending with foreign powers, have long sought access to media in order to influence and manipulate narratives. In Central Europe, both Russia and China tick the box of such powers. The analysis of this phenomenon is based on the study “From East with Love: Dissecting Pro-China Bias in Czech and Slovak Alternative Media”, which focuses on the topic of pro-China narratives in the Czech alternative media. The following is a summary of the main findings.
Pro-Kremlin media and Chinese narratives
In the context of Russia's invasion in Ukraine, China's apparent support for the Russian narrative has increasingly attracted the attention of politicians, analysts and the media. While China and Russia’s external propaganda operate in a different way, and are following distinct objectives and tactics, the convergence of messaging through similar channels and matching audiences found in Central Europe warrants attention. In Bulgaria, Russia Today and China Today have shared not only the office but even their publisher. Russian disinformation service providers in the Visegrád countries increasingly defend Huawei and help spread disinformation advantageous to Beijing, a trend observable in the cases of the Hong Kong protests and the nature of the outbreak of COVID-19. These outlets also grant ever greater space to Chinese ambassadors and officials to publish their op-eds and present official Chinese talking points, unchallenged. The convergence of Chinese and Russian messages through similar channels and to matching audiences in Central Europe warrants attention.
Media spreading disinformation and conspiracies often define themselves as “alternative," this term is broadly defined in previous research as “media that challenge the established channels and put forward alternative approaches and perspectives that contradict or diverge from an experienced dominant discourse in the mainstream media.” The “alternative” nature of the media can be demonstrated not only in reference to the published content but also the ways the news are produced, often utilizing clickbait and generally lacking in compliance with the ethical and unbiased journalistic work and transparency standards.
In the Czech Republic, the main alternative media are Sputnik, Parlamentní Listy and Aeronet. These media do not use manipulative techniques that are obvious at first sight. Instead, they employ subtle strategies, such as smuggling in specific quotes out of context, muddling facts, giving added prominence to Chinese and Russian voices, and deliberately omitting crucial information. Articles based upon Russian sources (e.g. Russia Today, Sputnik, or TASS agency) often discuss the relationship between Russia and China, describing it as mutually beneficial and as a counterweight to the Western liberal world order.
The analyzed alternative media frequently features comments of foreign agenda-setters from China and Russia. While referring to China-related topics, publishing China’s position on the issue is a natural part of the discourse – as long as it is put into context and properly explained, which was not often the case in the analyzed coverage. Otherwise, it may considerably impact the reader’s interpretation of the issue. This was particularly apparent in the lack of comments by Czech experts on China and a high number of comments on the issue provided by experts from Russia and China.
Taiwan: the new pressure point
One of the dominant topics in the Czech alternative media has recently become Taiwan. The media coverage was particularly dense between June and October 2020, connected to the visit of the Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil to the island at the beginning of September 2020 and subsequent escalation of bilateral relations when the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi threatened Vystrčil would “pay a heavy price” for the trip.
Former Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek contributed with several commentaries on the Taiwan issue as well. He criticized Czech Senators for their efforts to strengthen ties with Taiwan, labeling them “useful idiots.” Paroubek also drew a parallel between the situation in Hong Kong and potential attempts of an American state, putting New York as an example, to seek independence.
Another frequent contributor to the debate, either as an author or mentioned as an expert, was Jan Campbell, likely a German citizen of Czech nationality, who often provides comments on geopolitical issues to alternative Czech media. Concerning Hong Kong, he criticized the European Parliament resolution on the situation in Hong Kong, claiming its interference in internal Chinese affairs. He also suggested that the Maidan protest organizers were “exported” to Hong Kong.
A specific narrative related to the comparison between Taiwan and the so called “Sudetenland,” the Czech borderland with Germany and Austria, occupied and integrated by the Third Reich Nazi Germany in 1938, was used by several Czech stakeholders. This topic is often abused by the far-right and far-left circles in Czech politics in order to mobilize their electorate by playing the nationalist card.
5G: enter the ‘experts’
The narratives on potential Chinese involvement in the 5G buildup in the Czech Republic was to a large extent synonymous with those of the Chinese company Huawei. The alternative media often chose to omit the contextual background and offered a reduced perspective of the Huawei issue, portraying it as part of the trade war between China and the US.
Inevitably, the issue of 5G was frequently mentioned alongside another analyzed topic - the Chinese investment. These articles usually mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative, Czech President Miloš Zeman’s visits to China and his comments on 5G, and potential China’s involvement in a tender for the renewal of the nuclear power plant Dukovany-II. President Zeman also warned against China’s reprisals due to the Czech negative stance on cooperation with Huawei, talking about the threat of Chinese divestment and negative impacts on Czech companies such as consumer loan provider Home Credit or car manufacturer Škoda with direct interests in China. Thus, the frequent co-occurrence of 5G and investment issues in the media debate on Czech-China relations may also be explained by these assumptions.
National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NÚKIB), which issued a security warning on Huawei in December 2018, was sometimes subjected to criticism from the alternative media. For example, some articles argued there was a lack of evidence for the NÚKIB’s move. The criticism also applied to the Czech Security Information Service (BIS), which frequently mentioned China in its security reports, and its Director Michal Koudelka who was labeled as a “security risk for the country” due to focus on China and Russia while omitting the supposed threats posed by the West. The criticism of intelligence services was to a large extent driven by President Zeman, who has long been counted among the most vocal supporters of cooperation with China and Russia.
Another significant narrative referred to China’s technological prowess, stressing the attractiveness of the country for researchers and the unparalleled research potential of Huawei. One article even mentioned that Huawei cell phones are among the most secure on the market as they cannot be infiltrated by intelligence agencies. This shows how cooperation with China is often depicted as a necessity due to its prowess in technological research and development, while the security risks are downplayed.
The unbearable burden of responsibility
The professed effort of alternative media to showcase the plurality of opinions leads to the blurring of distinctions between relevant and irrelevant sources and the amplification of fringe voices. Likewise, the distinction between professional journalists and bloggers publishing their opinion articles, often without indicating their expertise, affiliation, or source of information disappears. This is also evident in the tendency to anonymise authors, whereby authors do not bear the burden of responsibility for their texts. Nevertheless this burden is in serious journalism indispensable.
Ivana Karásková Ph.D. is a founder and leader of projects China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) and MapInfluenCE and a China research fellow at Association for International Affairs (AMO), a Prague-based independent think tank.
Veronika Blablová is a data analyst at Association for International Affairs (AMO).
Pavel Havlíček is a Russia analyst at Association for International Affairs (AMO).
This article is based on the study “From East with Love: Dissecting Pro-China Bias in Czech and Slovak Alternative Media”, which was published in the framework of the project MapInfluenCE.