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Czech Interior Ministry: Ultranationalist party attempted to spark anti-Romani sentiment, extremists and xenophobes spread disinformation about COVID-19

9.10.2020 12:48
The Czech politician Tomio Okamura, whose
The Czech politician Tomio Okamura, whose "Freedom and Direct Democracy" (SPD) party is calling itself a "Patriotic Movement" in this campaign photo. (PHOTO: Aktron / Wikimedia Commons)

In the Czech Republic, extremist and xenophobic movements were significantly influenced during the first half of 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic; such radicals escalated their criticism of the European Union and NATO and alleged that the democratic system is incapable of adequately responding to the situation. Groups of a xenophobic orientation also called refugees carriers of the viral infection.

Extremists went as far as to disseminate dangerous disinformation that put those who might believe it at risk. The "Freedom and Direct Democracy" (SPD) of Tomio Okamura also repeatedly attempted to spark anti-Romani sentiment.

Those are the findings of the most recent report on extremism released by the Czech Interior Ministry. According to the report, in association with the spread of COVID-19, radicals have been alleging that the Czech Republic has fallen into a deep crisis.

These activists have called for the country to leave the EU and NATO, alleging that neither international organization has managed to control the situation. "In the vast majority of cases, however, extremist and xenophobic entities contributed no solutions for the problems associated with the COVID-19 disease," the ministry reports.

"The representatives of such groups have just constantly reiterated general, ideological statements," the report says. The radicals also exploited the pandemic in their anti-migrant and anti-Muslim Internet posts.

"Representatives of the Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) movement in particular repeatedly attempted to spark anti-Romani sentiment," the report says, adding that within the framework of the SPD's official presentations, the term "inadaptables" has been used for that purpose. Some xenophobic groups raised the subject of foreign workers as alleged perpetrators of crimes and as posing the threat of spreading the viral infection.

Some politicians, according to the Interior Ministry, have made the unfounded allegation on social media that COVID-19 was developed through genetic manipulation by the American military base Fort Detrick, a United States Army Medical Command installation. "The chair of the SPD movement (Tomio Okamura) also presented the opinion that the pandemic was being taken advantage of in western countries to introduce the euthanasia of senior citizens," the ministry reports.

"Okamura alleged that the aim was to destroy the elderly as supporters of traditional values and replace them with an aggressive immigrant population," says the report. The ultra-right National Democracy (Národní demokracie) group also brought forward the proposal of establishing special work camps for the so-called "socially inadaptable" at this time.

According to the ministry, the conspiracy theories about COVID-19 began by alleging it was an intentionally-developed biological weapon and moved on to criticism of the European Union for its alleged inability to control the pandemic. Patriotic or pro-national groups spreading xenophobic opinions and attacking the EU or NATO frequently echoed the content of disinformation websites spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda, the Interior Ministry says.

"The Russian Federation and China were, on the other hand, presented [in this propaganda] as states that had coped with the pandemic very effectively," says the report. Because of the limitations imposed on face-to-face meetings during the state of emergency, neo-Nazi communications intensified online.

However, in recent months, extremists have retreated from using their previously-preferred social media platforms, such as Facebook. Extremists have begun to take advantage of online services that are less well-known.

"The particular reason is that social media providers are now stricter against those disseminating hateful content. Neo-Nazis prefer communication services that guarantee a higher degree of anonymity," the ministry says.

After years of decline, the neo-Nazi White Power music scene has begun developing again, and in January and February private concerts were held on Czech territory for this particular audience, including members from abroad. Other such planned music productions were cancelled because of the pandemic here (as they were abroad).

The neo-Nazis, in response to the state of emergency, attempted to produce concerts through online broadcasting. Given the low quality of the technology used to broadcast those attempts, they can be assessed as rather unsuccessful.

Disinformation media disseminate nonsense about COVID-19, spread anti-Romani sentiment

Disinformation media outlets in the Czech Republic focused during the first half of 2020 on conspiracy theories about the pandemic, on anti-immigrant propaganda, on the controversial removal of a memorial to Soviet Marshal Ivan Koněv from the Czech capital, on the controversial building of a memorial to the Vlasov fighters who helped liberate Prague during the Second World War, and on racial unrest in the United States, managing to combine subjects that captivated almost the entire extremist or xenophobic spectrum. The extremists also targeted their criticism at Czech Television, the Security Information Service (BIS), and EU Commissioner Věra Jourová, who focuses on fighting disinformation.

"Xenophobically-attuned audiences were targeted with articles against immigrants, Muslims and Roma," the ministry reports. The Aeronet and Right Space (Pravý prostor) disinformation websites, according to the report, also published antisemitic articles, most of which were inspired by conspiracy theories of foreign provenance about "Zionist plots" and that cast doubt upon or downplayed the significance of the Holocaust.

"The 'Patriotic News' [Vlastenecké noviny], which predominantly produces primitive racist content, continued its criticism of 'the pigs in the police'," the ministry reports. According to the report, disinformation media outlets covered the removal of a sculpture of Soviet Marshal Ivan Koněv in Prague 6 and the building of a memorial to the Vlasov fighters in Prague-Řeporyje in a very intensive, long-term way.

Those subjects were especially followed by xenophobically-oriented activists expressing support for the current regime in the Russian Federation and republishing pro-Kremlin propaganda. "Those articles were frequently shared on social media," the ministry reports.

"In the discussions underneath them, hateful comments and threats were posted. The authors of these articles intentionally escalated that speech," the ministry reports.

The situation around the memorials resulted in threats being made against three politicians in Prague - the Mayor of the Capital City of Prague Zdeněk Hřib (Pirates - Piráti), the Mayor of Prague 6 Ondřej Kolář (TOP 09), and the Mayor of Prague-Řeporyje Pavel Novotný (Civic Democratic Party - ODS) - that are being investigated by police. In June, according to the report, disinformation media outlets then began to focus on the racial unrest in the USA.

Protests there and in other countries were sparked by the death of a black man, George Floyd, during his arrest in Minneapolis, and according to the ministry, Czech disinformation websites interpreted that news in such a way as to justify the harsh approach taken by the police officers in question, alleging that black people in the USA are criminals and that white people in the USA are the ones who are "really" discriminated against there. Several disinformation media outlets also alleged Floyd's death had been faked by an allegedly secret operation directed by what they called "Jewish Freemasons", or by the American financier of Hungarian-Jewish origin George Soros, according to the ministry.

In association with the pandemic, the conspiracy theories contradicted themselves, according to the report. Articles were published that, on the one hand, either cast doubt on whether virus is even real or downplayed the threat it poses.

Such articles alleged that the pandemic is a pretext for allegedly camoflauging an influx of migrants from Turkey to the Greek islands, or a secret tool for limiting personal freedoms and establishing a "New World Order". On the other hand, COVID-19 was also presented as an extremely dangerous, real disease by those same articles, according to the report.

The ministry said these websites alleged COVID-19 is a dangerous biological weapon developed in the USA and that migrants were being used to spread it. Aeronet, according to the report, alleged that "Jewish bankers" plan to make money off of the financial crisis that will follow the pandemic.

The Czech disinformation media repeatedly criticized the EU and NATO while, on the other hand, praising China and Russia for allegedly responding masterfully to the pandemic. "The aim of this constantly-reiterated content is to undermine faith in state institutions and the above-mentioned supra-national structures," the Czech Interior Ministry reports.

ČTK, ryz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Extremism, Interior Ministry, Racism, Svoboda a přímá demokracie (SPD)



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