Interior ministry-run anti-disinformation unit operational by January

Photo: Philippe Ramakers / freeimages

A new unit run by the Czech interior ministry designed to counter fake news and state-sponsored disinformation is to be up and running by January 1. Addressing concerns about censorship, the government insists that the new Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats is a necessary tool critical to national security.

Photo: Philippe Ramakers / freeimages
The move comes in the wake of a so-called “security audit” conducted across the entire Czech national security establishment, whose results were approved by the government in mid-December. The audit was ordered by PM Sobotka last year as a result of a spate of terrorist attacks across Europe. It covers everything from terrorism, mass migration, organized crime and also state-sponsored disinformation campaigns.

Furthermore, in its official 2015 report, published this September, the Czech intelligence services, known as BIS, concluded that the Kremlin was conducting a targeted disinformation campaign against the Czech Republic, designed, in part, to increase divisions in the country, reduce sympathy for Ukraine, and ultimately to weaken EU and NATO solidarity. The report also warned that Vladimir Putin's Russia was seeking to undertake “covert infiltration of Czech media” and to offer support for “populist or extremist subjects”.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
In his Christmas message to the nation, President Miloš Zeman came out strongly against the interior ministry’s plans:

“We don’t need censorship. We don’t need an ideological police. We don’t need a new department of press and information if we are to continue to live in a free and democratic society.”

The interior ministry issued an immediate rebuff to the president, a spokesperson noting that the ministry was not seeking to censor or ban anything, but rather to simply point to disinformation campaigns which are “systematically manipulating the public”. According to the website of the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats it will “not have a button for ‘switching off the internet’”, nor will it “force the ‘truth’ on anyone, or censor media content.”

Speaking to Czech Television earlier this week, Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec also dismissed concerns over potential censorship:

Milan Chovanec,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“The aim here is to ensure people have access to relevant information to supplement the kind of information disseminated today on the internet. We are part of a global world and global information society. And unfortunately we are also part of a global information war…Islamic State is very active online, while other sites disseminate the propaganda of certain countries. Whether for economic or security interests, we want to give people the chance to know the truth and what is really going on.”

The announcement of the creation of a new team to combat disinformation came back in May of this year. Around 30 people will work in the unit, which falls under the Ministry of the Interior. Efforts will go towards monitoring – and if necessary countering – false news stories spread over social media or by propaganda outlets.