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Steven Fisher: Any society, before applying restrictions, must be guided by international benchmarks and take on best practices, avoiding a system that prevents people from speaking

29 October 2020
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British Ambassador Steven Fisher noted that Moldova also faces the problem of political control over the media, like in many other countries and which, in his opinion, must be regulated. In an interview with Media Azi, the diplomat also says why the repeal of the so-called “anti-propaganda law” would create difficulties, how much the state should control the phenomenon of fake news, but also why the solution to many of these problems is media literacy – training the young generation to ask questions and think critically.
Media Azi: Mr. Fisher, you have been in Chisinau for a year as Ambassador of the UK. What do you think of the media market in Moldova and, especially, what problems of the media have you noticed? 

Steven Fisher: I would say it’s a diverse and quite complex market, with modern technologies, with a lot of emphasis on the Internet and social networking – I consume a lot of news through Facebook, which I didn’t use to do until I came here, that is, a lot of media use this network as an important means for disseminating information. Of course, most of the information is broadcast on TV, on the air or online. There is little traditional media, although there are newspapers, and I read some printed publications, too. It’s a diverse market, with varied content – some refined, some easy to digest, some of medium complexity, debating political and social issues, and independent media outlets have the chance to speak directly with top politicians. 

Over time, I understood that there are also structural problems in this area, challenges related to ownership and concentration of large media outlets in just a few hands, especially of influential politicians. In the United Kingdom, for example, there are regulations that prohibit political parties from owning media outlets or provide for how many outlets an individual or entity can own. I am not the one to tell you how Moldovans should structure their media market, but you certainly run into problems when prominent political figures own media outlets, and this phenomenon must be addressed wherever it happens, not just here. 

What do you think of the election campaign from this perspective? Have the challenges you mentioned worsened?

When it comes to politics, in general, but also to electoral campaigns, of course we want the media to be fair, to give equal space to all political platforms. I’m not just talking about how much time is given to candidates, but also about the attitude, the tone of journalists. Your question also brings to mind disinformation, fakes. I am not a media expert, but there are professionals in this field and responsible structures, first of all the Broadcasting Council, which monitors the situation, publishes reports and has the responsibility to supervise things. There are also independent organizations that illustrate how the media inform about this campaign and about presidential elections. Even the latest report from the Independent Journalism Center shows that four out of ten television stations you monitor are biased in their coverage of the electoral campaign. The citizen is the one who loses, by not benefiting from fair coverage of the political debate. I have said before, and I reiterate in this context, about the importance of the public broadcaster, which must be objective and provide a wide platform for national discussions on political developments in the country. I was glad to see that the IJC found Moldova 1 used neutral tone in the last monitoring. 

Further reading: IJC Report // Four out of ten television stations massively favor certain candidates

Two weeks ago, you had an official meeting with the representatives of the Broadcasting Council. What conclusions did you make after the meeting? 

I had a meeting with the chairman of the BC, for the first time since I became ambassador, and we discussed how they plan to exercise their role during the electoral campaign and the presidential election, what responsibilities they have. I came to the conclusion that it is a serious institution that is doing important work for Moldova during this period. 

Do you think there is enough capacity and will in this regard? 

I cannot comment because I’m not familiar with the activity of the Council in the smallest details. We had a first meeting where we approached strictly aspects related to this electoral period. We showed openness for future collaboration, already after the elections, if there are any needs we could support. Mr. Vicol was willing to renew the collaboration between the institution he runs and Ofcom, the UK’s equivalent authority. Certainly, I was impressed by the very clear explanations that were given to me regarding the responsibilities of the Council and the tendency to identify the line that would keep everyone satisfied, and I mean impartiality. 

Returning to political control over media outlets – one of the major problems in the media, according to experts, – what measures could be taken to reduce this influence? 

It is a valid problem in many countries and ultimately relates to the rule of law. Control of ownership over the media must be prescribed by law. The parliament must pass laws and the government must implement them. The problem is that those who should promote and implement such laws are potential beneficiaries of this right to media ownership. I have no better answer than to say that we need constant attention, a good legal framework, the implementation of provisions, but until then – a very clear idea of ​​the ownership restrictions you want as a state. Each state must identify its own options. However, it’s a controversial topic. It is easy to say what a certain industry should look like, and it is harder to make it real. After all, this is a problem that local politicians have a mission to solve. 

How important in this context is the ability of the media consumer to distinguish between quality information and information that manipulates? 

It is an essential thing, it is probably a goal that can never be achieved one hundred percent, but which is worth any effort. Disinformation and fakes have existed throughout the history of communication, since people learned to speak. It probably exploded with the advent of print media, and now we are going through another revolution in this regard, that of social media, and I think that has exacerbated the problem. I don’t think we can emphasize enough how important it is for citizens to be able to perceive what is false and what is not. The problem is about control, control of the primary sources of information, which, in my opinion, are uncontrollable. It is impossible to manage everything that appears on the Internet, and I do not mean only politicians, regimes or governments that try to use disinformation in order to obtain political benefits – anyone can now publish a fake online. In the beginning, when the Internet was just gaining popularity, there was a tendency for people to believe everything, thinking that because it appeared on the Internet, “it is real.” Now, the good news is that people have become more skeptical, and this skepticism undermines the whole concept of fake news. However, another problem will arise if we go to the other extreme, risking to have no one believe anything.

In this whole context, media literacy is crucial: to understand what disinformation or false information is, to be aware that they exist. That is why we are delighted to support a project set exactly in this direction – training educators on how to teach media and information literacy in schools, with the goal to teach young people an essential life skill. I am referring here to the MEDIA-M project (“Media Enabling Democracy, Inclusion and Accountability in Moldova”) and the openness of the Ministry of Education to the introduction of the Media Education course in educational institutions is welcome. More than 6,000 young people from several regions of the country have gone through this course in recent years.

It’s a long process, but it’s just like the old saying, “Give the man a fish and he’ll have food one day. Teach him to fish and he will have food for life.” That is what we do – we teach young people to discern, to be skeptical, to ask themselves what is true and what is not, that is, we offer them the fishing rod with which to catch the fish. It is difficult, but it’s definitely more effective than just telling someone that a piece of news is good or bad. That teaches them nothing. We want to generate debates; we want those who study this course in school to share what they have learned with their families, their peers, with those who have not studied it. We also hope that the project related to media education will contribute to increasing the popularity and success of independent media, as more and more people will think critically and ask only for quality information.

Further reading: Almost 2,500 students are studying Media Education this school year

Besides media literacy in schools, what other media activities does the United Kingdom support in Chisinau? 

Within the MEDIA-M project, which is very large and ambitious, with several partners, we support six independent media outlets in terms of training and capacity building of journalists, both skills related to their work and business skills. One of the biggest challenges for the media in our age is to be financially sustainable. In many countries, journalism is not a dangerous profession in terms of physical security, but it is in terms of financial security, so part of the assistance we provide through MEDIA-M is related to exactly this aspect – how to make these organizations profitable and sustainable. I want to emphasize that we are not interested in what any particular media outlet writes, what its editorial policy and agenda are; we do not impose any values ​​or political angle of approach to things, etc. What we do is support those we consider objective and who believe in freedom of expression.

We have been criticized – recently, too, with the publication of a book by an MP from the Party of Socialists – and the Fund for Good Governance, the UK program through which the MEDIA-M project is funded, too, has been mentioned, people saying that it is allegedly used to control Moldova, to influence certain things politically or to undermine the independence of this country. These allegations are far too general, extremely inaccurate and not true. What we are doing, including on the media side, is provide support that allows quality media to reach as many citizens as possible, so that they can make their own conclusions and their own decisions on issues that affect their lives. 

Further reading: Public alert. Stop the attacks on the Republic of Moldova’s civil society

The Ministry of Justice recently announced that it is awaiting proposals for a draft law that would establish sanctions for the deliberate distribution of fake news. There is still no clarity on this subject, but some state institutions have shown openness to the fight against fake news. On the other hand, there are experts who have expressed reluctance. From this perspective, is there a lesson that our authorities can learn from other states in the fight against fake news?

It is a difficult question because, on the one hand, there is freedom of expression, and on the other hand, there is the international legal framework for the protection of human rights, including the right to restrict freedom of expression when that freedom affects other rights enshrined in law. In the UK, you can say mostly anything until you reach certain limits. For example, hate speech – you can’t say things that incite violence against someone based on certain criteria. However, for the law to prevent such facts, this discourse must come from a concrete person, who has authority or sufficient influence for other people to act on the urge. What I mean is that there is a fairly high bar for authorities to pass; the law enforcement can come and say that what has been said is contrary to rules and demand that the person concerned be held accountable. It is also valid for defamation, slander and so on.

I believe that any society, before implementing any restrictions, must be guided by international benchmarks; see the opinion of the Council of Europe, which is the experience of countries that have already implemented certain things in the same field; draft a law that would take over and combine best practices in order to avoid a system that hinders people from speaking. I know that disinformation and fake news are different from hate speech or defamation, which I referred to earlier, and they are even more difficult to manage, but at some point they all violate the same laws and principles. In the UK, we generally have a high degree of tolerance for this phenomenon, unfortunately, and we are mainly trying to address the issue by strengthening people’s critical capacity to believe or not believe something.

In my opinion, these issues need to be addressed at some stage, in order to avoid extremes or abuses, but I am not credited with saying how or to what extent, precisely because there is freedom of expression. There is the question of which authority should decide what fake news is and what it is not, as well as judge these things and decide on what sanctions are appropriate. Probably the best way to fight is, however, to give citizens the ability to discern and ask questions.

Three years ago, the so-called “anti-propaganda law” was adopted in Moldova, which only allows the retransmission of information programs from the EU, USA and countries that have ratified the European Convention on Transfrontier Television, thus restricting those from the Russian Federation. According to some political parties, this law is discriminatory and “hits directly” on the country’s citizens and should be repealed. What would you say to them in reply? 

All I can say is that this is a law adopted in the context of bilateral relations between Moldova and the European Union, as part of the Association Agreement, therefore, a possible cancellation or withdrawal of this law will create difficulties and I believe that such development of things should be avoided. This law exists for good reasons and it was adopted through a legal procedure in the Parliament. Of course, it can be annulled if the legislative majority wants it, but I think it would cause a lot of problems. Moldova would again become vulnerable even to the things that the law, seen as an appropriate means of defense and risk management, is designed to prevent. It is not my decision, it is an issue concerning the local political class, but I think it is an area that deserves careful treatment, and it is not simple.

Twelve years ago, BBC World Service decided, after 68 years of broadcasting, to stop the activity of the BBC editorial office in Romanian, which also broadcast programs for Moldova. Are there any chances for BBC Romania to relaunch its activity or maybe to open an editorial office in Chisinau? Under what conditions could this happen? 

I think BBC World Service was and is a fantastic vehicle for us, as a country, but also for the rest of the public who listened and still listen to it, especially in difficult times – a lot has happened in the almost 70 years that you have mentioned. Strictly related to the question, I do not see immediate perspectives, that is, I have not heard discussions or debates on this subject. If any initiative arose, I would be open, including to the existence of such a service in Moldova. We’ll see. However, I think that the current economic situation would be an impediment in this regard, as everyone is going through an economic crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic and not only, so I don’t think there is any immediate prospect, but I would not be categorical in this regard. 

Sursa foto: Media Azi