Three years ago a new organization calling itself the Society for the Defence of Freedom of Expression (Společnost pro obranu svobody projevu) has emerged in the Czech Republic that is claiming to defend free speech, but a closer examination raise red flags about several aspects of this group that it may be more focused on spreading disinformation under the guise of free expression. While protecting civil liberties is certainly laudable, here are some of the problems that skeptics see.
The founding members and advisors of the group have extensive ties to figures known for promoting pro-Russian propaganda and conspiracy theories. The society was founded in 2021 by figures like game developer Daniel Vávra and businessman Vlastimil Veselý. From the start, questions were raised about their true intentions. Vávra has a history of sharing discredited conspiracies and has shared misinformation from pro-Kremlin politician Václav Klaus Jr. in the past, while Veselý’s social media is rife with pro-Kremlin propaganda, COVID denialism, and attacks on democratic leaders and institutions. Advisory board members like Petr Drulák and Jana Zwyrtek Hamplová are well-known for parroting Russian talking points, such as denying war crimes in Bucha. Other advisors like Ivo Budil and Zbyněk Passer have spread conspiracies and supported pro-Russian candidates. Given these backgrounds, it is reasonable to question whether the group’s true aim is defending free speech or more about providing a platform for certain types of disinformation.
Rather than protect open discourse, the available evidence suggests the society’s real aim may be to defend harmful pseudo-facts and undermine the credibility of reliable fact-checkers. They claim censorship is a growing threat, but provide no compelling evidence this is the case in the Czech Republic’s vibrant free media landscape. Their definition of “censorship” appears to include any effort to counter propaganda and fake news, which responsible media have a duty to do.
How not to poll
In a worrying example, the group commissioned a public opinion poll on issues of free expression that was conducted by a controversial pollster called SANEP (Experts raise serious doubts about SANEP’s methodology and whether its internet panels can truly be representative of the population.) The poll’s methodology seemed designed more to lead respondents towards certain preconceived conclusions than objectively measure public opinion, and presentation of results were seriously flawed and clearly intended to elicit particular responses. Leading questions and limited answer options steer participants towards the predetermined viewpoint that courts, not independent fact-checkers or journalists, should have the final say on the veracity of information – a stance threatening accountability and scrutiny.
Genuine defenders of free speech promote honest, fact-based debate and uphold accountability for demonstrable falsehoods that endanger public trust and welfare. In contrast, the activities of this “Society” seem aimed at undermining verification of claims and removing consequences for spreading disinformation under the guise of defending an important democratic value. Their narrow definition of free expression as absolute license to disseminate any claim without response or accountability serves only to empower manipulation. In a democratic society, members of the public must have freedom to critically analyze information and expose falsehoods without fear of legal repercussions. Overall, the group does not seem genuinely committed to open and unfettered discussion, but rather using the language of free speech to foster an environment more hospitable to certain pseudoscientific, anti-establishment or pro-Kremlin narratives.
While defending civil liberties is important, not all speech acts are equal.
Some can directly undermine democratic principles or public health. There are reasonable limits, such as prohibiting incitement to violence or deliberately spreading medically dangerous fabrications during a pandemic. Given the backgrounds and associating of those involved with this organization, we can argue it may pose a stealth threat to Czech democracy by enabling the spread of certain disinformation under the noble banner of free expression.
While the right to free speech must be safeguarded, democratic societies also have a duty to expose actors covertly using libertarian values to promote deception and corruption. Defending freedom of information requires constant effort to distinguish it from its manipulative abuses.
The true interests and backers underlying this “Society” remain obscure and their arguments appear disingenuous. Their influence and potential impact on public deserve ongoing critical monitoring to ensure it is not exploiting the language of free expression to undermine facts, public trust, and the integrity of democratic discourse in the Czech Republic.
As the perils of the post-truth era intensify globally, responsible civic actors must be vigilant against organizations that exploit noble principles like free speech to shield anti-democratic agendas from criticism.