Upholding Free Speech In The Fake News Era
27 March, 2018

Ukraine’s media market has been heavily dominated by oligarch ownership for decades. But while independent outlets are making their mark on the industry, their criticism of the country’s authorities is often touted as counterproductive by those same faces. 

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir, however, believes that independence is greatly valued in Ukraine, especially at a time when the country is battling Russian-backed forces within its borders.

While military combat has been contained to the Donbas, Kyiv has also been batting Moscow’s information warfare.

“That's an international discussion and in all countries today there is an attempt to legislate or to look at ways to stop fake news,” Désir explains. “Here I think that the real and good answer is to promote quality of information [and] professional journalism, to debunk fake news, to develop media literacy, to help people to understand that they cannot take for granted all kinds of news which are on [the] internet or on Facebook, or on Twitter.”

So how does a country like Ukraine deal with propaganda and fake news without sacrificing freedom of speech? Hromadske spoke with OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir to learn about getting the balance right.

You’ve met journalists, different media organizations. What is your impression? What are the main issues – at the moment in Ukraine – to raise, for somebody who is taking care of freedom of speech [and] representing the OSCE?

I think Ukraine is a country where freedom of speech is respected. There are a lot of diverse media outlets and I think that Ukrainian people are very much attached to the development of free media in the country. Nevertheless, I have met a lot of your colleagues and journalists’ associations, and we are working permanently with watchdogs and advocacy groups for media freedom and we are worried about certain problems which remain regarding safety of journalists, of course, because of impunity after the crimes against several Ukrainian journalists. I think about the crime against journalist Pavel Sheremet – the perpetrator, the mastermind has still not been brought to justice.

READ MORE: ‘Who Killed Pavel Sheremet’: Hromadske Investigation

There are still several incidents and I think there is no minor incident when [it’s] about safety of journalists and it's very important that the judiciary, the law enforcement, the government, of course, put in place all the necessary policies to ensure that any threats and any attacks against journalists will be investigated. This is concern that we have everywhere in the OSCE region.  

We currently have at least three more journalists who are being detained. We can speak about Roman Sushchenko in Moscow, about Mykola Semena in Crimea, and Stanislav Aseev, who is in a much worse situation in Donetsk. The public sees that even though Russia is a member of OSCE, currently there is very little the international community can do to really have an impact. What would you say to those who say you’re not making much of an impact and that this international pressure isn't working?

Yes, of course. This is a very important issue that we have raised during this meeting in Kyiv and when I paid an official visit to Russia last year. Roman Sushchenko was a well-known journalist, he was working from Paris and he has been arrested and he is still [being] detained in Russia. This is not an acceptable situation and I recall that OSCE participating states took commitments to encourage the free flow of information, to facilitate the work of journalists from other participating states, to give accreditation and not to arrest journalists coming from other participating states. Stanislav Aseev was a blogger working in Donetsk. He had been arrested by the separatists outside of any kind of legal procedure and we have asked for his release since the beginning. And Mykola Semena is now under house arrest in Crimea and we asked [them], we asked that he be able to come to Ukraine and to Kyiv freely and it's not acceptable that he has been condemned and even forbidden to exercise his work [as a] journalist.

READ MORE: A Journalist Disappears in Occupied Donetsk

READ MORE: Silencing Dissent: Russia Finds Top Crimean Journalist Guilty of “Separatism”

So, the issues that we have raised in the context of a dialogue between [the] National Union of Journalist of Ukraine and the Union of Journalist of Russia. And there were several common appeals and public statements to ask for the release to Stanislav Aseev.

The Ukrainian government is always very disappointed when international organizations are criticizing them for limiting the work of some of the Russian government channels, of Russian social networks and the other things. And somehow those people who support those bans always say: “But France is looking at how to deal with fake news, Google should deal with fake news.” For instance, there is the discussion about foreign agents taking place in the U.S. and the British are talking about RT (Russia Today). How would you reply to that – that the Western governments are also trying to do something to stop fake news but in the case of Ukraine there is always some kind of criticism that Ukraine is putting pressure on the media?

That's an international discussion and in all countries today there is an attempt to legislate or to look at ways to stop fake news – disinformation, propaganda. There has been some legislation, which was aimed at fighting hate speech – for example, racism, antisemitism, terrorist propaganda. It's a very difficult issue because of the special dimension of social media, where you can have thousands or millions of unlawful content where calls for violence are disseminated sometimes by extremist groups, sometimes by other states which try to meddle in the situation of their neighbor [or of another] country. But I think that we must be very attentive to the fact that this wording – “fake news” – can recall a very different kind of situation. Of course, there could be a lot of people who just put silly things on the internet which are not real information. Here I think that the real and good answer is to promote quality of information [and] professional journalism, to debunk fake news, to develop media literacy, to help people to understand that they cannot take for granted all kinds of news which are on [the] internet or on Facebook, or on Twitter.

READ MORE: Expert Explains: How To Spot A Propaganda Bot on Twitter

A second, different thing is the attempt sometimes by certain states to intentionally give disinformation to try to create trouble in another country. Sometimes there has been the use of troll factories, for example, this has to be investigated very precisely and I think that transparency here is important. To know, for example, who is buying advertisements on Facebook, especially in an electoral campaign. And that's a very intense debate now in the United States, where is this investigation on what happened [during] the previous presidential campaign.

READ MORE: U.S. Indicts Russian “Troll Factory” And Its Employees Over Election Interference

And there is also the fight against hate speech, there is legislation which exists and there is international law which says that calls for violence are a threat against people because of their origins, their religion, their race, for example, can be forbidden. That could be a legitimate limit to freedom of expression, it was already existing for printed press, now it can be applied to the internet. But we must take care that it will not be done by algorithms which will not only block and take down unlawful content but which could also block the access to some critical voices, and independent media outlets.

And I'm very careful about the way some governments try to impose on social media, to internet intermediaries, more and more blockades, saying that they just fight against fake news, against propaganda or against hate speech, but in fact are trying to stifle, to restrain the space for free media and for criticism. And it's very important to find a good balance and that's also the discussion now in European countries, for example, in Germany in France, also in the United States. To look at the way you can impose some kinds of regulation to the internet, social media, but protect the freedom of expression and the diversity of opinion. And I think for Ukraine this will also be a key issue. We are engaged in the discussion with the government but with these issues of hate speech, we have to provide legal advice about international standards, and good practices which exist in other countries. And I think it will be of utmost importance for Ukraine. I understand the country is in a very difficult situation, facing very difficult challenges, linked the conflict, to the annexation of Crimea, to the conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine. But to protect freedom of expression and to ensure that legislation will not put at risk the development of free media, even if of course governments are sometimes upset by free media because the work of journalists and the work of media is to criticize, to develop critical thinking. But that's an ability of democracy and that's also how public debate can progress in a country.

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Introduction by Eilish Hart