Argument

How an Internet Impostor Exposed the Underbelly of the Czech Media

When politicians own the press, trolls have the last laugh.

A man reads Czech newspaper Lidove Noviny in a shop in Prague on March 21, 2011. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)
A man reads Czech newspaper Lidove Noviny in a shop in Prague on March 21, 2011. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

Tatiana Horakova has an impressive résumé: As head of a Czech medical nonprofit that sends doctors to conflict zones, she negotiated the release of five Bulgarian nurses held by Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, traveled to Colombia with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to secure a hostage’s freedom from FARC guerrillas, and turned down three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Not bad for someone who might not even exist.

Horakova has never been photographed. She does not appear to have a medical license. Her nonprofit, which she has claimed employs 200 doctors, appears to be a sham. Her exploits, so far as anyone can tell, are entirely fabricated.

None of this has stopped the press from taking her claims at face value time and again over the course of more than a decade. When it comes to a good story, incredulity is scant and memories run short.

Earlier this year, she again emerged from the shadows, this time to troll Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis—and expose just how easily disinformation can slip into the mainstream press, especially when politicians control it.

In September, the Czech broadsheet Lidove Noviny published an op-ed by Horakova expressing support for Babis’s refusal to offer asylum to 50 Syrian orphans, as was proposed by an opposition member of parliament. Playing up to his populist pledge not to allow “a single refugee” into the Czech Republic, the prime minister said the country had its own orphans to care for.

That crossed the line and provoked widespread criticism. But Horakova’s op-ed seemed to offer a way out: an expert offering the opinion that the orphans would be better off at home in Syria. 

Horakova originally sent the piece to the prime minister’s office, which forwarded it to the paper. A brief Google search would have raised plenty of red flags about the author, but the newspaper leaped without looking.

Lidove Noviny pulled the piece within hours, but not quickly enough to stop several high-profile journalists from quitting. The editors, they complained, could no longer protect the newspaper from its owner—the billionaire prime minister.

Desperate to deflect criticism, Babis’s office appears to have passed the article to the paper without doing due diligence, and the paper took what it was spoon-fed.

The debate over the Syrian orphans had created “a highly charged political moment,” Babis’s spokesperson, Lucie Kubovicova, told Foreign Policy. She said she did not know “who exactly” sent the article to the paper.

“Politicians submit opinion columns to newspapers all over the world,” Kubovicova said. “It’s entirely normal. This was just a mistake.”

It does not seem likely that Babis or his team would have injected such easily traceable fake news into the prime minister’s own newspaper knowingly. But that didn’t stop the scandal, which highlighted his connections to the news media, from blowing up in his face.

The second-richest man in the Czech Republic, Babis controls numerous news outlets, including two of the country’s three major broadsheets: Lidove Noviny and Mlada fronta Dnes. But he rejects accusations of editorial interference. Before he took office, new conflict-of-interest legislation introduced last year specifically targeting Babis forced him to put his businesses into a trust.

Lidove Noviny’s editor in chief, Istvan Leko, chose to accept responsibility for the op-ed rather than blame Babis, apologizing for failing to verify Horakova’s credentials. Sources still at the newspaper back up his account, although one journalist who is close with Leko said they were worried he does not recognize that he is blurring editorial lines.

Lidove Noviny can console itself with the knowledge that it is hardly the first newspaper that Horakova has hoodwinked. She has spent more than a decade exploiting the media’s appetites.

In 2007, she praised, in statements to the press, former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico for his role in securing the release of five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death in Libya. She claimed to have also been involved the effort, but Slovak press reports turned up no evidence, and instead set about questioning her identity.

Yet that didn’t stop the media from reporting the following year on her claims to have offered to swap herself for French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, who was held for over six years in the jungle by FARC guerrillas.

Over the years, the regional Czech and Slovak media has also reported stories in which Horakova locked horns with al Qaeda and Chechen terrorists and advised the U.N. on U.S. actions in Iraq.

The latest incident sparked new efforts to figure out who she is and what she wants. The only official document related to her nongovernmental organization is a Czech registration granted in 2014. She has insisted that a website would be a waste of precious resources. The organization maintains an empty office in Prague. The landlord, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, said she owes several years’ worth of back rent.

In October, reporter Prokop Vodrazka of Denik N, an outlet initially called Novy Denik that’s run by journalists wary of the concentration of media ownership in the hands of politicians and oligarchs, spoke to someone claiming to be Horakova on the phone several times. He said he suspected her motivations were financial rather than political.

Horakova last surfaced three years ago, as the migrant crisis in Europe was provoking panic. Then she insisted the Czech Republic should offer Syrian orphans asylum. The Vatican went on to hand her more than $100,000 to fund a clinic to house them, according to Denik N.

No clinic has been established. The Vatican’s office in Prague did not respond to a request for comment. Horakova told Vodrazka that the money has been used for the “right purposes” but the Church is now looking into the matter.

“I can’t imagine how it would work if the intention is to spread fake news,” Vodrazka said. “It’s too easy to check her history. She’s never taken state funding, which would expose her to possible investigation. I think she’s sitting in a single-room flat laughing at us all.”

Under that scenario, Horakova’s latest media appearance was presumably intended to maintain a profile that might help secure funding in the future. But no one can know for certain.

Jonas Syrovatka of the Prague Security Studies Institute said he suspects that Horakova is a real person, but with “a strange perception of reality.” Regardless, the fake news she propagates serves to undermine trust in the press—deservedly.

“It’s yet another illustration of the poor state of Czech media,” Syrovatka said.

It would be tempting to admire Horakova’s daring and effectiveness in illustrating the media’s structural flaws if the ramifications were not so serious.

“When political and media gatekeepers fail … it undermines the democratic debate,” Syrovatka said.

Media ownership is a growing concern in the Czech Republic. Oligarchs seeking political leverage have in recent years gained control over virtually every major newspaper in the country. The trend has scattered many of the best journalists to new outlets, usually online. 

Babis has faced regular accusations of using his newspapers and radio stations for political gain. In tapes released by unknown sources onto the internet last year, for instance, he was heard discussing stories damaging to his political rivals with a reporter from Mlada fronta Dnes, which alongside Lidove Noviny is controlled by Agrofert—the agrochemicals conglomerate that is the centerpiece of Babis’s business empire.

Naturally, the media outlets owned by rival oligarchs have taken great delight in reporting on the Horakova scandal. Frantisek Vrabel of Prague-based risk assessment firm Semantic Visions told Hospodarske Noviny—a broadsheet owned by the Czech coal baron Zdenek Bakala—that Czech politicians consistently underestimate the dangers of disinformation. Dozens of “Russian propaganda factories [designed] to disrupt democratic society” have proliferated in the Czech Republic, he said. Other research suggests that over 90 percent of Babis’ 370,000 Twitter followers may be fake accounts.

The Babis administration maintains that the Horakova op-ed was a one-off incident. Her history of successful trolling, and the Czech media’s track record, suggest otherwise.

Update, Dec. 5, 2018: This article was updated to reflect the news outlet Novy Denik’s name change to Denik N.

Tim Gosling is a Prague-based freelance journalist and analyst covering Central and Eastern Europe. @TGosCEE

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