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Foes of Slovakia’s air base deal with the United States encourage ‘outing’ of lawmakers online and in their hometowns.
Opposition party members in Slovakia have taken to social media to settle scores with members of parliament who voted for a deal to allow the United States to use Slovak air bases.
Politicians have had groups of disgruntled people show up at their doors – both before and after the vote earlier this month – accusing them of treason and delivering hateful messages. Parliamentarian Michal Sipos of the ruling OLaNO party says some deputies’ homes are being monitored by police.
The names and faces of the 79 deputies who supported ratification of the agreement have been widely shared on social networks as a “list of traitors.” In closed groups, users are trying to obtain the lawmakers’ street addresses and contact data. One such group on the unregulated social network Telegram has a picture of a gallows posted next to its name.
“It is also very unpleasant for the families and children of the parliamentarians. I would say that the boundaries of what is acceptable have been crossed,” Sipos said.
The headquarters of the national police force told Dennik N that they have been “monitoring and assessing” the situation. Police in several regions “have adopted adequate security measures,” police spokeswoman Andrea Dobiasova said.
The agreement, opposed by opposition parties on both the far left and far right, allows the U.S. military to use Slovak airbases at Malacky-Kuchyna and Sliac for 10 years. Slovakia, a NATO member, will receive $100 million from the United States to modernize them.
The deal was signed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Slovak Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad. The Slovak parliament passed it on 9 February, and President Zuzana Caputova then inked her own approval.
The 79-60 vote in the 150-seat legislature was split between the four-party ruling coalition and the opposition, including the far-right Ludova strana nase Slovensko (People’s Party Our Slovakia) and the Smer party of former Prime Minister Robert Fico.
The vote took place amid continuing tensions over Ukraine. Washington has similar agreements with 23 other NATO members, including Poland and Hungary, which also neighbor Ukraine.
Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger said the treaty will “significantly enhance our security.” But the opposition claims it compromises the country’s sovereignty, enables a permanent presence of U.S. troops on Slovak territory, and even could mean deployment of nuclear weapons in Slovakia.
Tips for Harassment
Opposition politicians with a strong social media following are egging on their followers, both directly and indirectly.
Smer deputy Lubos Blaha posted pictures of the faces of parliamentarians alongside the names of their hometowns.
“Let all of Slovakia know where these traitors live,” he wrote on Facebook. “They are driving us into war against our brotherly Russian nation. … They will forever be branded with the stamp of shame on their foreheads. Point your finger at them as they walk the streets of your town – so they know they wear the mark of the traitor.”
Milan Mazurek from the far-right movement Republika used similar language.
“Don’t be surprised if they point their fingers at you in the street, spitting every time they see you. I don’t approve of violence, and I think you should be charged and tried in a court of law,” he said, addressing politicians from the governing coalition.
Others were quick to publish lists of the 79 coalition deputies. Populist independent deputy Tomas Taraba did so right after the vote, followed by Mazurek and Milan Uhrik of Republika and Branislav Becik, a small-town mayor affiliated with the left-wing Hlas party.
Politicians from the People’s Party Our Slovakia of far-right politician Marian Kotleba joined in, also encouraging people to pay a visit to the “traitors.” Kotleba’s Facebook propagandist Mario Vidak posted a photo from the village where OLaNO deputy Sebastian Kozarec lives. It shows a sheet of paper posted on a pole, pointing out that Kozarec, a “traitor to the Slovak nation,” lives in the area, in case anyone wants to “thank him.”
Lawmakers’ Reactions Vary
Lawmakers targeted on social media are dealing with it in several ways. Kozarec said he doesn’t consider the acts threatening and is not considering legal action.
“I think it says more about them than it does about me,” he said. “A politician has to tolerate a certain degree of public criticism. I’m surprised they don’t have anything more useful to do with their time.”
He said he is convinced that the people who are leaving him such messages in the village haven’t read a single line from the defense agreement. Instead, they have been convinced by “liars from the opposition,” he said.
Fellow OLaNO deputy Peter Vons found a “A traitor lives here” sign on his gate. He has not taken any legal action but is considering it for the sake of his family.
“I reject hateful behavior, which is being ginned up by some opposition deputies and their followers,” Vons said. “I think that in fact it’s the very people attacking us who are really acting against the best interest of Slovakia. They are becoming a part of propaganda and hatred, and that’s very dangerous.”
In a Facebook video, Miroslav Ziak of the SaS (Freedom and Solidarity) party called on the police and Prosecutor General Maros Zilinka to act – specifically against Blaha.
“What’s next? Will they build gallows for us? Will they smash our windows?” Ziak asked.
The police say they are looking into the incidents. The Prosecutor General’s office has not commented.
At least in one case, Zilinka has expressed sympathy for the victim of a verbal attack, in connection with disrespectful tweets by two reporters with the daily SME addressed to the Christian pop singer Sima Magusinova.
Last November, Zilinka wrote on Facebook that “insults are not freedom of speech,” suggesting that the special prosecutor’s office should verify whether an act of defamation against a nation, race, or creed had been committed.
And at least one deputy apparently has come under fire for changing his mind. Sme rodina (We are Family) deputy Patrick Linhart originally said he would not support the U.S. defense agreement, but he voted in favor in the end. His explanation was that Defense Minister Nad had answered his misgivings.
“It really bothers me that just because on one occasion I didn’t ‘press the button’ that some people would have liked me to, I am now subjected to threats, disinformation, and incredible hatred,” he said.
And what do those who are feeding this wave say about all of this?
Blaha wrote to Dennik N that he, too, received threats after the 2018 murder of journalist Jan Kuciak, when the “liberal media were egging on the Bratislava coffeehouse types against us.” He said the hometowns of pro-treaty politicians that he published are publicly available information.
“I’m not calling on anyone to try and find out the exact addresses where they live. I’m just saying if people meet them somewhere in Bratislava, they should make it known to them that they are traitors,” Blaha said, adding that politicians from the current governing coalition used to protest in front of Fico’s house. [Fico was prime minister at the time of Kuciak’s murder by a hired killer. He eventually resigned amid anti-government protests – Transitions note.]
Social Media’s Limits
The actions of Blaha and others also are made possible by the fact that social networks, especially Facebook, have a long-standing problem when it comes to the removal of hateful content. A European Commission review in October reported that during 2021, social media companies removed 69 percent of content reported for calling for murder or violence. Defamatory statements were removed in 55 percent of the cases.
There are, however, large differences among social media sites, as well as among countries. International comparisons show that Slovakia, a relatively small market, is in a worse position than some other countries. Social network administrators remove fewer harmful posts by Slovak users than is the case in larger countries.
A year ago, Dennik N tested Facebook’s actions regarding hateful content. The newspaper notified the company of a total of 56 posts praising violence or containing calls for attacks and dangerous threats. Of those, the social network only deleted one post. Others were only removed after we wrote to Facebook representatives that we were working on an article.
Another problem is that Facebook does not provide sufficient assistance to police or prosecutors. Generally, Facebook only provides data to the authorities in cases of people being suspected of terrorism and acts of violence.
One nation that has decided to change this is France. In 2019, it became the first country to agree with Facebook on providing information about users suspected of spreading hatred. Slovakia has no such agreement in place.
This article by Dennik N reporters Vladimir Snidl, Lucia Osvaldova, and Filip Struharik appeared on 11 February. Reprinted with permission.
Translated by Matus Nemeth and edited for clarity and concision.