Harlem Désir, OSCE: If while defending freedom you renounce to it, you have a problem
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Since the beginning of public discussion about the draft law on countering disinformation, started by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports on January 17, many western partners of our state have expressed their assessment to it to the Ukrainian government and parliament. These communications usually took place not in public but not all of them. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir gave a press conference last week in Kyiv, stating that the current draft law should be set aside.
The Detector Media met with Mr. Désir and asked him about his assessment of the media initiatives of the Ukrainian authorities, tools of countering disinformation which are effective in his homeland in France, and the purpose of a conference on media freedom in Moscow.
– Mr. Désir, you met with us, representatives of media NGOs, yesterday and asked about our point of view on the draft laws “On media” and on countering disinformation. I am sure that we were not the only people you discussed this topic. And now I'm asking you in response what are your final impressions of these two draft laws?
– First, I’m still continuing to meet with different actors and people involved in the discussion about new media laws in Ukraine. I will meet with the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports tomorrow, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday (the interview was recorded on February, 5. – DM). I will also meet with the chair of Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy in the Verkhovna Rada. I will meet with the State Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting. I've also met with representatives of different media, with the chair of the Public Broadcaster and other journalists.
My first impression is that most of the media organizations and the journalist association (the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine. – DM) have been very much surprised by one of these two laws you refer to. I think the first one, the law “On media”, was an expected one. It's a law of modernization which merges previous legislation on television, radio, printed media, and online media. We will give to the government legal review of this law. We have been beginning to look in it. We think that it should be amended on several aspects, especially because it gives new and very extensive power to the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting and because this power will now apply to online media.
But the second law, the one on countering disinformation, is viewed by many as very problematic. It was not discussed enough with the media community. And I think the government should have totally different approach to this issue. We have a lot of concerns about several provisions of this law. First, the role of the state Commissioner who will be appointed by the government and with very strong power of interference in media content. We are also concerned of the level of the penalties – the level of fine, prison sentences – proposed in this draft law. We also have problems with this new Association which will be created by the law and which will deliver professional card to journalists. As a total, this represents too many state interferences in the media content and in the journalism activity.
We think that the fight against disinformation is very important but another approach should be built. The media community and journalists are the first allies in such fight against disinformation. So it's very important to build any kind of initiative with them, not against them. The fight against disinformation must be based on the development of diverse sources of reliable information being private media, public service media, fact checking initiatives, media literacy initiatives to debunk false information. So we think that it's absolutely necessary for the government to take more time to think about this approach and build another strategy. That's what we will be discussing with the authorities.
– You mentioned that you're going to meet with the Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy and the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. Are you going to visit the Office of the President as well? Because the ministry is just acting according to its decree.
– No, we have no such meeting during this visit.
– During recent weeks, we had lots of meetings with our international partners, representatives of international organizations, embassies, and thank you all for your support on these issues. They often asked us how they could help in this situation. And we asked for two things. First, of course, to give good advice to our authorities and help to prevent from very dangerous steps. Second, to provide the authorities with the expertise on how to counter disinformation in open societies. Many of them came to the government from media businesses, they are well-known and highly respected professionals. But they have lack of specific experience in countering disinformation, protection of national information environment, etc. Could you name more tools against disinformation for our readers?
– Yes, of course. We will suggest to look at the different approaches and strategies which have been developed in other countries. Of course, everybody is looking for the best answers to disinformation. The situation in Ukraine is also specific one because of the conflict in and around Ukraine. But this issue is of high interest everywhere in the world including European countries and the U.S. because of many manipulations of information which occurred, e.g. interference in electoral campaigns. So it is something on which it is important to have very high level of international cooperation.
I think, for example, that initiatives of fact checking which have been developed by many media in Europe are of high interest for Ukraine. And, of course, it's important to have a discussion with social platforms, the internet intermediaries, because in many examples we have seen how troll factories used false accounts to amplify the dissemination of rumors, false information. That's why many countries had discussions with Facebook and Twitter to ensure that they will block or delete the false accounts or identify the dissemination of false information artificially. I think that this is an approach in which we could help the authorities here to look at what has been done in other countries, but also encourage the media community to work in cooperation with many actors from other countries.
– I have no doubt that you know a “tiny” detail about the negotiations with tech giants: it’s a difficult task for all countries except, perhaps, of the U.S. From my point of view, France was more or less effective in these negotiations, but you could correct me. How can Ukraine, which is not so strong at international stage, conduct these negotiations successfully?
– You are right to say that this is sometimes difficult because of the difference of jurisdictions which apply to these companies. Most of them are based in the U.S. and their First Amendment is very different from European legislation regarding the possibility to restrict certain content. But everywhere now, even in the U.S., there is a discussion about the rules for certain behavior on social platforms. In the U.S., it's a discussion about the fight against terrorism but they also see the manipulations of information for political purposes. So these companies know that they have to take into consideration demands of societies.
Of course, for Europe it's necessary to try to engage with these tech companies at the level of the continent to have more capabilities to impose some kinds of regulation. Ukraine is a big market for them too. So it's important to share with them that no legislation will putting at risk the way they can operate.
I think they try to adapt their community guidelines to the demands. But, of course, it means that the authorities have to be very strong and clear in these demands. We have seen that there have been very strong demands to social platform in the fight against terrorism because after the priest in church terrorist attack (murder of the priest during the service in Normandy, which was filmed by the terrorist. – DM) the video of the attack was online for too long time so that it was reproduced. But the fight against terrorism is not the only one in which there are some legitimate demands to these platforms. It's perhaps more important to delete false accounts (sure, it must be done in a way which is respectful to freedom of expression,) in order to combat the action of troll factories than to create the state commissioner who will interfere in the content of the independent media of Ukraine.
– I might suppose that you know situation in France very well. France also introduced law on countering fakes. As far as I know from Ukraine, it wasn't applied yet and it is somehow blocked on the European higher level (by the Directive on electronic commerce. – DM). What is your view on this particular law in your country?
– In fact, this law is very specific legislation for the electoral period. So it doesn't apply at any time. It has very specific and narrow objectives. And it's probably too soon to really do an evaluation. At the time when it was adopted we have been given a legal review that the authorities of France have to suggest some adjustment, especially in the implementation of the law. And I think that it was because of the name of the law (the law on countering manipulation of information. – DM). It was seen outside of the country as a general law against fake news while it's in fact a very limited legislation for very specific period of time before election.
In France, there is very interesting fact checking initiative developed by many media. It has been done by TV channels, radio stations, printed media, and lot of online media. And almost every day, on the public service television you have two or three minutes which are dedicated to debunking false information which is disseminating on social media during the day. And it's the same in a lot of printed press: there is one page of checked news from Internet.
– Was this fact checking initiative started by media themselves?
– Yes, it was initiated by media themselves. Most of them have done it internally, but they also sometimes decided to cooperate together.
It's important that there is not only one media doing it because otherwise you could have another issue: can I trust this specific media outlet? It can make a mistake or have the political view. I think it's a new part of the role of journalism. Previously, the role of journalism was to furnish information, analyze it and comment on what was happening. Today, we have a lot of sources of information. We are informed not only when we open a newspaper or online media. We are informed permanently because everybody can provide information on internet. But the problem is that we don't know where this information comes from. We don't know if it has been checked by some professional journalism.
Journalists still have a role to investigate, to report, to furnish information, to give opinion what is happening, and to be part of the wider public discussion, but also to check the information which is provided by many other actors: individual citizens, political groups, states. And to help to find a way in this jungle of information in which we will not avoid fake news to exist.
I don't think that the law could get us rid of fake news. There is some kind of illusion in the idea that if you have law on fake news, on disinformation, you will have a solution. That it's like if you vote a law for clean water, then industry will have to respect it because there is a fine and water will be clean. No, we do not close the Internet if people are providing false information.
So, unfortunately, there are good and bad aspects of this new era of information when everybody can provide information. There is a lot of very good things in it: new media have aroused the situation when a lot of citizens can spread information. In some countries where there is no free press people can provide information through the social media about protests and so on. But there is also a lot of false information.
So the answer is not to think that we will get rid of it. The answer is to develop critical thinking, media literacy and to ensure that those who have dedicated their life and profession to providing reliable information are able to survive in this environment. And tech companies, internet platforms play an important role because they have to give more visibility to these media.
– I fully agree with you that it's impossible to solve the problem of disinformation by the law itself. But we understand that there is a difference between countries which are not at war with Russia and do not struggle so much from its tools of hybrid warfare, and those countries which are at war. It's always a question: how to find the balance between security issues and freedom of speech. Maybe, we should move freedom of speech. What is your opinion?
– I would say that there's a lot at stake here, in Ukraine. One of the reasons why Ukraine wants to defend its sovereignty is linked to the Maydan, to will of citizens to build a democracy, to benefit from freedom of expression, freedom of speech, free choice in politics in general. If while defending this you renounce to it, you have a problem. In the past, a lot of democratic countries has been at war: there were colonial wars, World War II. I don't know if you remember that: at the time of World War I, Rudyard Kipling said that the first victim of the war is the truth because the war is the time of propaganda. War is a time when the state and the army want to control the information, to stop some information to be disseminated, and to develop a propaganda which will be supportive of strategic goal of the country. This is one of the risks of the war.
So I think it's very important, especially in this dimension of combating disinformation, to find tools and approaches which are not detrimental to preserving freedom of expression and media freedom. It's not simple, I recognize it. But that's what we will be discussing with the authorities.
– I'm sure that you are following the investigation of a murder of Pavel Sheremet. Did you pay attention on what happened in December when the Ministry of the Interior organized a briefing with the presence of the President of Ukraine? They named several people as alleged criminals. But it looked like we saw not enough evidence.
– Yes. I've been greeted the new development in investigation in the murder of Pavel Sheremet and the announcement in December by the prosecutor general and the minister of interior that the murderers have been identified and arrested. But since then, it looks a little bit more complicated.
I think it's very important to ensure that there will be no impunity in the murder of Pavel Sheremet and that all those involved would be identified and brought to justice. And we have very much hope that this investigation will continue.
This is very important for safety of journalists. It's important in itself as a principal, but Pavel Sheremet was also a very respected and well-known journalist for his work on corruption, received a lot of world recognition, then he was threatened and he has not been protected. And since then, other journalists have also been attacked and some have been killed in Ukraine (in different context but still). I think of Vadim Komarov from Cherkasy. He was not as known as Pavel Sheremet, he was mainly working locally, but he was also very active in investigating corruption.
Or there was an attack against Katerina Gandziuk. Some people have been sentenced, someone has been recently arrested in Bulgaria (the alleged organizer of the attack on Katerina Gandziuk Oleksiy Moskalenko (Levin). – DM). It's clear that all those involved in this have not been brought to justice and it must be done. And it must be absolutely clear that there is no impunity for all those who are involved in these attacks against the press. That's why it's so important to ensure that the investigation of Pavel Sheremet's crime would be continued.
– I would also like to ask you about your conference on media freedom in Moscow in last November. Unfortunately, I couldn't watch the whole video of the conference, but I read your opening remarks. I noticed that you expressed concerns about Russian legislation: the “sovereign” internet or anti-terrorist legislation which also has an effect on freedom of media. I think that we both understand that there is no freedom of media in Russia (or you might say that there is almost no freedom of media there). And you conducted the conference with Vladimir Solovyev and Kirill Vyshinsky (who is alleged criminal here) as speakers. Why did you decide to do that and put your brand on such event?
– First, as you mentioned, when I go to any participating state, I always raise, even publicly, the concerns that we have with the legislation. And we also raise it in direct discussion and meetings with the authorities, members of government. That's what I've been doing on the occasion of this conference in Moscow last November as I will be doing it in Ukraine during this visit. We want to end up the participating states to improve their legislation which can be detrimental to media freedom, or to safety of journalists, or to access to information.
During that conference, we have invited all different kinds of journalists to participate. There were independent journalists, even some of them who have been detained before like Igor Rudnikov from Kaliningrad. There were also journalists from “Novaya Gazeta” and very important media like “Kommersant” or “Vedomosty”. In other words, there was a wide range of journalists which spread from these journalists to the state's owned media. I think it was important to have an open discussion with the authorities but also with this wide range of diverse media and journalists who had very different views on all the issues including even fake news and disinformation. And, of course, that was not always an easy discussion. But it was handled and made publicly. So I hope there will be also occasion to organize such event in different countries.