The website Sputnik CZ is the Czech branch of the Russian information agency Sputnik, which was officially established on 10 November 2014 within the Russian media group Rossia Segodnia. Although Sputnik defines itself as an “information agency that provides news coverage related to world politics and economy,”1 experts consider this platform an important tool of Russian state-run propaganda.2 In fact, even Russian officials themselves acknowledged the fact that the media outlet is an important tool for promoting the state’s interest.3
Although Sputnik CZ has been operating in the Czech Republic for five years (and its Twitter and Facebook accounts have been registered since 2012), relatively little was known about its internal functioning until recently.
However, in March 2019, the editor-in-chief of Sputnik CZ, Sofija Ovanes, presented the work of her website publicly at a meeting in the Russian Center of Science and Culture in Prague. According to Mrs. Ovanes, ten people work in the editorial office of the Czech version of the website, which is based in Moscow.
According to the editor-in-chief, the website is visited by approximately 50,000 unique visitors per day.4
According to the think-tank Globsec, Sputnik is indeed one of the most widely read media known to spread manipulative content in the Czech and Slovak information space.5
The growing reader base of this website is illustrated by the steadily increasing number of followers (currently around 40,000) of its Facebook site.
Even though Sputnik CZ tries to present itself repeatedly as an ordinary medium that is only trying to offer an “alternative view” (as Mrs. Ovanes puts it), manipulative texts are published on this website regularly.
For example, according to the EU vs. Disinfo website run by the EU East StratCom Task Force, 27 cases of disinformation published on this website were discovered in the past three years,6 and Konspirátori.sk — a Slovak NGO reviewing the content of various news portals — has labeled Sputnik CZ as an untrustworthy source.7
Examples of Manipulation
One of the most blatant examples of manipulation was the coverage of the demonstration related to the placement of an explanatory sign to the statue of Soviet Marshal Ivan S. Konev in Prague. A small gathering consisting of, at most, several dozens of people was turned into a massive demonstration of 100,000 (!) people in Sputnik CZ’s reports. When Czech media drew attention to this manipulation and the Ministry of the Interior objected to it, Sputnik CZ edited the article.8
As the findings of the Prague Security Studies Institute in the project “Investigating Russia’s Role and the Kremlin’s Influence in the 2019 EP elections” show, Sputnik CZ is not only falling to provide accurate information on an individual case basis, but also in relation to the proportionality of coverage.
Sputnik CZ published 1519 texts during the analyzed period between 15 March and 15 April 2019. One third of them (417 texts) was dedicated to issues related to the Russian Federation. A significant part of them was based on official statements by representatives of the Russian state or military.
Therefore, it is possible to say that websites in many cases only transmitted the official political line of the Russian state.
In terms of topics, the Russian engagement in Venezuela (29 texts), the confrontation between the Western states and Russia (23 texts), and the Russian presence in Syria, and the (allegedly negligible) impact of sanctions imposed on Russia (both topics mentioned in 21 texts), were mentioned.
Nonetheless, non-political themes highlighting the various topics (such as cultural festivals, natural habits, and other curiosities) related to the Russian Federation were also present (mentioned in 40 texts). This trend of publishing attractive content, which has previously observed been,9 shows that Sputnik CZ is trying not only to attract new readers, but also to create a positive image of Russia as an interesting country.
This typical soft power approach is combined with the repetition of the official line of Russian leaders, and the portrayal of Russia as a strong and confident superpower able to pursue its interests around the world.
An important role in the presentation of the strength of Russia was played by pointing out the various achievements of the military, mentioned in 44 texts.
Even though the positive portrayals of Russia were clearly prevalent, quotes critical towards Russian politics were also mentioned (26 texts).
However, these were often taken out of context or ridiculed.10 Great attention was paid to reflections on criticism towards Russia (26 texts), which was described as inadequate, biased, and purposefully motivated.
At the same time, criticism of the US and its allegedly aggressive foreign policy (mentioned in 31 texts) appeared on the website. In this respect, it is worth mentioning the frequent texts highlighting the disruption of Russia’s airspace by US aircrafts, which were to show that not Russia, but Western states, provoke possible conflict and act irresponsibly.11
Even though Czech journalists refuse to cooperate with Sputnik CZ and most mainstream politicians do not give interviews for this website, it has not been abandoned in the Czech information space regardless. Especially for other platforms having pro-Russian stances and disseminating disinformation and manipulative content, it is a welcome source of inspiration.
This was the case, for example, for one of the most influential Czech conspiracy websites, AC24, which has republished almost all of its texts related to Russia from Sputnik CZ during the analyzed period. Thus, Russian narratives fall on fertile soil in some parts of the Czech information space, which could be seen, for example, in relation to the Sergei Skripal poisoning12 or the Kerch Strait incident.13
The findings of the Prague Security Studies Institute’s research reaffirm that Sputnik CZ is a tool of Russian foreign policy and not a standard medium.
However, it remains a question of how well we understand its operations. For example, when it informs the public about Russia-related topics, it is very active and it has the potential to shape the debate in a certain part of the Czech information space, but it devotes significantly less attention to other areas (including Czech policies) even when it might be expected.
For example, Sputnik CZ was more or less uninterested in the 2018 presidential campaign and did not significantly support candidate Miloš Zeman, who is known for his pro-Russian views.14
Therefore, Sputnik CZ and other branches of this agency should be analyzed more consistently and comprehensively, because it might help to identify narratives that the Russian government is trying to promote through individual companies. Indeed, these findings could help us better understand the objectives of Russian policy in the particular countries in which this influence tool operates.
2 “Russian Social Media Influence”, RAND Corporation (https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2200/RR2237/RAND_RR2237.pdf )
3 “Kremlin-funded broadcaster lauded by Putin starts TV news channel in UK“, Reuters (https://www.reuters.com/article/britain-russia-tvchannel-idINKBN0IJ2MR20141030)
4 „Šéfka českého Sputniku poprvé promluvila: Sídlíme v Moskvě, dělá pro nás deset lidí. Z chyb se učíme”, Deník N (https://denikn.cz/99106/sefka-ceskeho-sputniku-poprve-promluvila-sidlime-v-moskve-dela-pro-nas-deset-lidi-z-chyb-se-ucime/)
5 “What Do We Know About Disinformation Websites in the Czech Republic and Slovakia?” Globsec (https://www.globsec.org/news/what-do-we-know-about-disinformation-websites-in-the-czech-republic-and-slovakia/)
8 “Proruské fake news. V Praze prý demonstrovalo 100 tisíc lidí na podporu Koněva”, Echo24 (https://echo24.cz/a/ph5s8/proruske-fake-news-v-praze-pry-demonstrovalo-100-tisic-lidi-na-podporu-koneva)
9 “Ruská agentura Sputnik mění strategii. Láká i na spoře oděné ženy a vydává třikrát víc článků”, Aktuálně (https://zpravy.aktualne.cz/domaci/ruska-agentura-sputnik-meni-strategii-laka-na-spore-odene-ze/r~07c25aba9bc311e889f40cc47ab5f122/)
10 “Kdo se neplazí, není Čech… BIS v USA převzala ocenění za zahraniční spolupráci”, Sputnik CZ (https://cz.sputniknews.com/ceskarepublika/201904049565065-bis-v-usa-prevzala-oceneni-za-zahranicni-spolupraci/)
11 “Tři jaderné americké bombardéry proletěly poblíž hranic Ruska”, Sputnik CZ (https://cz.sputniknews.com/svet/201903259505667-tri-jaderne-americke-bombardery-proletely-pobliz-hranic-ruska/)
12 “Skripal: The Two Faces of the Czech Media Space”, Visegrad Insight (https://visegradinsight.eu/skripal-the-two-faces-of-the-czech-media-space/)
13 “Kerch incident proves Ukraine & NATO “prepare for war against Russia”” – Russian propaganda in Czech & Hungarian media“, EuromaidanPress (http://euromaidanpress.com/2018/12/11/kerch-incident-proves-ukraine-nato-prepare-for-war-against-russia-russian-propaganda-in-czech-hungarian-media/)
14 “České volby v éře dezinformací: Prezidentské volby 2018”, Prague Security Studies Institute (http://www.pssi.cz/download/docs/538_prezidentske-volby-2018-analyza.pdf)