Assistance for the sake of truth: how the EU supports the independent mass media in the Eastern Partnership countries

20-09-2017

A video published on the official Facebook account of the EU Delegation to Ukraine opens with words: "Three things you should know about Russia Today and Sputnik." The video explains that Russian state-run mass media "do not want to be impartial", and that they "create fake news". These facts are already well-known to Ukrainians, but this English-language video does not target us, but a broader western audience.

It is especially significant that the initiative comes from the heart of the EU’s foreign service, the "strategic command" of the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Even a couple years ago it was impossible to imagine such a publication. However, times change.

Discussions about anti-European propaganda have stopped being a prerogative of the three Baltic countries; today the reality of this threat is recognised in Brussels and in western European capitals as well. They finally acknowledged Russian interference in the run-up to last year's referendum in the Netherlands; the President of France publically called the Russian state-run mass media "propaganda agencies", and in Sweden they talk about the information war being carried out by Russia…

What does the EU do in order to combat the new phenomenon? And is it possible at all to resist it effectively?

This issue was discussed at the 2nd Eastern Partnership Media Conference, which took place on 13 September in Kyiv, and brought together some 300 journalists, experts and officials from the EU and Eastern Partnership countries.

In short, the conclusion is as follows: it is necessary to counteract, but it is not simple to do so.

Five priorities

"Russian propaganda is especially active and sophisticated in the Eastern Partnership countries," Katariná Mathernová from the European Commission explained.

At the same time, Brussels identified the key tools of this counteraction and they were discussed at the media conference in Kyiv. "It is impossible to fight lies with other lies. However, it should be admitted that fighting lies with the truth is also hard," the representative of the European Commission said.

It was agreed in the EU that the best option to counter propaganda is to support the independent mass media.

According to the documents presented at the conference, the EU's efforts will be concentrated on five approaches.

  • Improvement of media environment (including assistance in reforming legislation);
  • Increasing the standards of the mass media;
  • Rapid response financing of independent publications;
  • Separate lines of financing for some media categories (public broadcasting, new initiatives, small regional mass media);
  • Professional development of journalists.

Some of these points have already been financed. The European Union with its Member States have launched three projects, which encompass the Eastern Partnership, including Ukraine. The first one is called the Russian-speaking Media Network and was created to exchange content and experience among the region's mass media. The second project is the OPEN Media Hub, which aims to develop and increase the professional level of mass media and some journalists. And the third initiative is the support of independent mass media via the European Endowment for Democracy.

If you pay attention, you will notice that Russian propaganda is not mentioned, either in priorities or in specific initiatives.

One can agree or argue with this, but this is the approach that was chosen: the EU recognises the problem of Russian influence in the field of information, but they think that it is above all, the job of the local authorities, activists and journalists to fight back.

How it works

"We are not speaking about combatting propaganda at all. Our goal is to support and develop the independent mass media," Maryia Sadovskaya-Komlach, the coordinator of the Russian-speaking Media Network said.

Fundamentally, the project is about content exchange (including the latest news and life stories) between mass media of different countries, and inside the country as well, between its regions. The idea is not only about mass media exchanging videos or texts, but also for them to learn from each other. "Exchange of contacts, knowledge and expertise, all this is more important than simple content exchange," said Sadovskaya-Komlach.

The idea of content exchange became popular in the EU, so this component is also present in the OPEN Media Hub project. However, its main activity is consultations and training for mass media that have applied for project participation.

And it is not about just training for journalists, it is much more important to teach mass media to work in a complicated business reality, in a new reality where media around the world encounter problems.

According to OPEN Media Hub trainer Petko Georgiyev, a component of financial sustainability is discussed in all mass media trainings, and it is planned to launch an online course for mass media devoted to the business component and income for online mass media.

It is no coincidence that such attention is paid to the financial issue.

Every second speaker at the media conference in Kyiv mentioned that without financial self-sufficiency mass media cannot count on their independence.

This is the key problem of mass media in Ukraine and other countries of the region as well. The advertising market is more dead than alive. Mass media that survive without depending on advertising are a rare exception and not the rule.

And, most importantly, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. "Years will pass until independent financing substantially increases," Jason Lambert, the founder of the Newsgain company, said at the conference in Kyiv.

The EU's support is also important because the independent mass media have the most problems. And not just because they do not have "a financial cushion" from their owner, it is also more difficult for them to start making money from advertising. "We have three largest advertising agencies controlled by the authorities. As you understand, they do not take an advertiser to a mass media outlet which is not loyal to authorities," the editor-in-chief of the Armenian TV company Gala, Karine Arutyunyan, explained. The situation is very similar in Moldova and a number of Ukrainian regions; the smaller the market, the more often it is controlled by a particular political force.

Naturally, the European assistance is, first of all, allotted for small, regional mass media.

And about problems

Of course, prospects are far from being rosy.

Financing with grants is a real help but it cannot go on forever.

Assistance through consulting can support the media, but is not able to resolve its daily problems.

And even the "European Union's pet project", the system of content exchange among mass media is not always successful. "We are the opposition TV and if we produce a story, it will definitely not be taken on by the pro-government channel. And we will not take their product either. Or, let us say, we have Ukrainian stories, we would like not just to receive a ready video, but to come and shoot it ourselves," said Karine Arutyunyan, whose TV channel participates in the OPEN Media Hub project.

However, she admits that even if the EU's help is not ideal, it is still useful.

Realistic expectations are the prerequisite for success.

It should be understood that European Union provides support but does not replace the editorial staff.

"We cannot change the market conditions in any country. We help mass media with content but one cannot be full with this, people need to get paid. Therefore, if mass media do not have other sources of financing, if they do not have their own content and so on, the European Union cannot help them," Mariya Sadovskaya-Komlach explained.

 And it is hard to argue with her.

And finally, even the successful work of a few independent mass media outlets does not resolve all the problems, including those related to the influence of Russian propaganda.

"We should understand that we do not have this 'magic bullet', which would improve the situation. Complex actions are needed… In order to counter fake news, in particular, we need to increase the population's media literacy," said Sven Mikser, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, which holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union at the moment. 

But the main thing necessary for combatting propaganda and fake news is realising that they exist and that they are a real problem.

And it can only be noted with joy that the EU has finally realised this.

Author: Sergiy Sydorenko

Article in local media