Political turmoil distracts Czechs from mass surveillance

In a country in the midst of political turmoil, the news of mass surveillance generated little interest from the media or the public.

When The Guardian published the news about the Prism case, it soon became clear that the Czech Republic was also one of the countries monitored by the NSA. In a country in the midst of political turmoil, the news of mass surveillance generated little interest from the media or the public.

“Friends should not be spied on”, commented Angela Merkel on the discovery that US  intelligence spied on the European citizens and authorities by exploiting their private data gained from the Internet companies such as Google. No such clear comments have been heard from most Czech politicians, though.

Both the Czech president Miloš Zeman and prime minister Jiří Rusnok have remained quiet about the case. Only one of the members of the largest party in parliament, the Social Democrats, criticised both the surveillance itself and the fact that Edward Snowden broke his confidentiality agreement with the NSA. “It is an unprecedented insult to the mutual trust with the EU”, wrote the Social Democrat Libor Rouček, who is the vice-president of the European Parliament, on his official blog. “The USA should put maximum effort both into arresting Snowden as well as explaining why they spied on their European allies!”  Rouček wrote. The second largest party, the Civic Democratic Party, has made no official statement on the issue at all.

The Communist Party (currently holding 11% seats in the Parliament) did not express itself on the issue, but their sister organisation, the Communist Youth Union, has published numerous articles on their website, calling the spying “a brutal attack on freedom“, and praising Snowden as a hero. The party which supports Snowden the most is the non-parliamentary Czech Pirate Party (holding 2. 2% support in the opinion polls). The Pirates asked the interior minister to grant Snowden asylum but no answer came before the abdication of the government in early July.


Main Interest: on the Social Media

The Czech media referred on the Prism case just a few hours after the Guardian and The Washington Post broke the news. However, most of the coverage has been neutral and very few commentaries have been published on the issue. In those few commentaries, Snowden has been portrayed as an ambivalent character. He has been criticised for breaking his contract with his employer, but also praised for his courage to speak of what has been suspected for a long time. Most commentators have stressed that information on spying by big companies such as Google not a new thing.

“It has been known for a long time that the NSA has been building big IT centres with super fast computers,” writes for Jiri Sobota, a leading commentator of Respekt. “On the other hand, we are all involved in the same thing on a daily basis and free-willingly as the NSA has been doing basically the same thing as Google – analysing as much data about us as possible in order to ‘understand’ us better.”

It is hard to sum up the public reaction as there has been no Czech opinion poll on the Prism case, but a brief look at social media shows interest is on the wane. The revelations have been discussed more on social media than in regular media outlets. On Facebook, which is currently used by every third Czech, it was a heavily debated topic in the first half of June, but then the interest soon declined. Twitter, used by about one Czech in a hundred, seems to have had a more continuing interest in the case. There have been about 3,500 tweets on Snowden since the Prism case started. For comparison, the hottest current issue discussed in the country – the love affair of the former prime minister Petr Necas with the head of the government´s office Jana Nagyova, who spied on Necas´ wife with the help of the state security and helped scuttle the Necas’ Government — was tweeted about 4, 000 times in the same time period.


Worry-free Czechs

In general, the Snowden case has created little interest in the Czech Republic. That may be surprising due to the 2012 Eurobarometer survey. While 25 % of Europeans said they were worried about spying on the internet according to the survey, the number was much higher among Czechs: 37%. However, though they may be worried, Czechs do not have a very strong tradition of public protest and they have never protested against mass surveillance.

When Germans protested heavily against the Google Street View recording in 2011, Czechs remained without one critical word towards the very same activity in their country. The public also remain relatively mute to the government’s draft legislation that would enable the state institutions to monitor the cell phones of every citizen in the country.

One of the explanations of the lack of interests in the Prism case is also the fact that it came in the middle of the biggest political turmoil the country has witnessed since the fall of the Iron Curtain, so the focus has generally been more on the inner politics. Also, Czechs -unlike Germany, British or other nations- have had no big scandal connected to mass surveillance yet, so the public fear of such activities might be lower.

Historically, the general perception of the U.S. has been very positive in the Czech Republic, which is why some commentators are saying that had another country been caught spying the reaction would have been stronger.

Lucie Kavanova for Index on Censorship

Lucie Kavanova is a Czech Journalist, based in Prague, working for a leading weekly magazine Respekt