Czech Republic: US Radar Provokes PR War

The Czech government has begun an 890,000-dollar information campaign supporting the U.S. plan to set up a radar station in the Czech Republic. Opponents of the plan – led by the Social Democrats – want some of that money to fund alternative information campaigns so as to create an actual debate on the issue and prepare the population for the possibility of a referendum.

The radar system – officially presented by Washington as offering protection to the West from missile attacks by "rogue states" such as Iran and North Korea – would have two elements: a radar in the Czech Republic and an anti-missile base in Poland.

"We decided to start an alternative information campaign since we feel the government is brainwashing the Czech public, and we chose to visualize this problem for both the public and politicians in a mocking fashion," Lenka Kukurova, action campaigner for Greenpeace Czech Republic, told IPS.

Members of the Greenpeace organization recently staged a protest depicting a scene in which a U.S. general dictates to Czech ministers how to promote the base. The ‘ministers’ could be seen holding sponges and washing giant brains placed on the heads of activists who represented the public.

"The action was very attractive for the electronic and printed media and we received good feedback," said Kukurova, "I think it’s because we are not just protesting, we are offering alternative information."

Growing disapproval of the base among the Czech public precipitated the Greenpeace information campaign. Most Czechs do not trust Washington’s justification for the radar and parallels have been drawn to the situation that lead to the 2003 intervention in Iraq, when the U.S. claimed the Iraqi regime had developed weapons of mass destruction.

Government politicians insist that the public is unqualified to deliberate on the base and some believe they have already decided in fervor of it.

Even the right-wing media have cautioned the government.

The cabinet should at least "finance the functioning of an expert team . . . with the participation of people who are regarded as authorities – whether justifiably or not – by the radar’s opponents," read a piece carried by the Czech daily Lidove Noviny on Aug. 7.

The government has appointed a public relations expert, Tomas Klvana, to work as spokesman on the U.S. radar issue. It has also hired the AMI Communication public relations agency to help promote the idea.

Klvana lectures at the New York University in Prague and is a representative of British American Tobacco in the Czech Republic. He also writes for the leading dailies Mala Fronta Dnes and Hospodarske Noviny, which both support the radar.

Shortly after his appointment last summer Klvana admitted supporters of the base "have not been coping well with communication," but also said it was difficult to speak to people from the regions "with rational arguments."

On Nov. 2 Klvana launched an advertising campaign – as part of the government information program – involving information posters that will be placed on 500 benches and telephone booths.

Civic initiatives challenging the government plans are gaining steam.

A letter by 50 famous personalities was sent to Czech President Vaclav Klaus calling for a referendum on the base.

The letter accuses the government of scaring the public with false arguments such as threats that if the radar base is not built, in the future conscription may be reinstated.

Klaus, who is favorably but moderately inclined towards the radar, argues that the presence of foreign troops in the Czech Republic would require national consensus. He says he will not veto a referendum proposal by parliament.

A call for a referendum was already rejected by parliament on Oct. 26.

Opponents of the referendum claim difficult decisions should be left to politicians: "By his or her vote and taxes the voter is paying both for professional political decisions and also for politicians’ willingness to take on responsibility for complex and thankless decisions," right-wing daily Mala Fronta Dnes wrote on Sept. 1.

Klaus accepts that the radar’s absence from the 2006 election campaign makes the referendum initiative necessary.

The President has been critical of the government’s approach to the issue. He says that the public’s concerns about the radar cannot be easily dismissed, calling them "natural and very human."

Locals of the areas surrounding the possible site of the base in the Brdy hills, south of Prague, fear the densely populated area could be the target of international terrorism and have raised questions about the possible health risks of radiation emitted by the radar.

The mayors of the potentially affected localities – overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. plans – have established an association to resist the base and are demanding that the government meet with them directly to assess the possibility of harmful health effects from radiation.

Opposition leaders and a group of scientists attacked a study conducted by the defense ministry – which deemed the radar harmless – for its lack of independence and superficiality.

"The study cannot be regarded as trustworthy," reads a statement by scientists from the Brno-based Electrical Technology Institute. "If a university student of radio technology were to defend this as his final thesis, he would most probably fail," the experts said.

The defense ministry has conceded there were mistakes in the original study but claims to have corrected them. Chief Public Health Officer Michael Vit has announced that another study on the radar’s health impact will be presented soon.

Supporters of the radar stress the importance of strengthening Czech ties to the world’s only superpower.

Many right-wing Czechs resent pacifist movements for what they regard as their pre-1989 sympathies towards the Soviet Union, and the right-wing press regularly accuses the plan’s opponents of lacking realism and harboring radical anti-American feelings.

Historical resentment towards the presence of foreign troops is also playing a role, with opponents of the radar viewing the rejection of the U.S. base as an ultimate proof of the country’s independence from foreign superpowers.