The fight against disinformation should not be seen as a threat to the freedom of expression or censorship, because it is not a matter of naively publishing news. On the contrary, disinformation campaigns are organized by the State and directed towards manipulating public opinion and pressuring decision-makers.
This is what, inter alia, the Director of the Intelligence Agency, Erold Musliu, said on the panel-discussion titled “State of affairs and challenges related to the influence of disinformation in the Republic of North Macedonia” as part of the conference “Building Social Resilience to the Harmful Effects of Disinformation in the Republic of North Macedonia”, organized by the Presidential Centre for Political Education and the Metamorphosis Foundation.
Musliu warned that the country will be a target to disinformation propaganda related to the Constitutional amendments, the Church-related issue and the Elections 2024.
“Kremlin is utilizing its diplomatic capacities in the region to control and direct the “tools” – such as pro-Russian NGOs, church clergy, political subjects, journalists, media, Internet portals and influential persons on social networks that are supporting the Russian hybrid propaganda in the region. Russian hybrid strategy devised for the Western Balkans and North Macedonia is based on using “windows of opportunity”. Hence, open issues and lagging behind Euro-atlantic integration provide the possibility for Russia to be an effective malign actor in the region”, said Musliu.
The Director of the Intelligence Agency said that a classical reflexive control operation by means of disinformation campaign related to the process of accepting the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Archdiocese of Ohrid is ongoing currently in the country.
In addition, the Director of the Intelligence Agency mentioned the presence of Chinese influence in the country.
“I can say that there are indications that local media are being paid to publish articles of strategic importance to China, but with regional and local adaptations”, said Musliu.
Mile Bosnjakovski, General Secretary of the Cabinet of the President of the Republic of North Macedonia, stressed that the media lost its role of creating public opinion and that the social networks were dominant now.
“I believe that social networks predominantly have taken over the role of the media, meaning that they do not operate as media. They, however, are media according to all definitions of what media does, in terms of transmitting information important for the citizens”, said Bosnjakovski.
He gave an example about how news on the social networks caused a wave of disinformation. Specifically, this was a well-known public campaign claiming that the country will accommodate migrants from the Middle East countries.
“It is true that the Republic of North Macedonia will build an Asylum Centre, because the old one was in ruins and is still dilapidated. From this information – that the RNM will build a new Asylum Centre – traditional media created the information that immigrants will be brought into the country, millions of immigrants. A few days after that, everything turned into a general national campaign where even signatures were being collected [against settling of the immigrants] – not to allow their entry, while the question was pretty straightforward – allow entrance to whom? Absurd. Today, disinformation does not need any longer traditional media to provide that shameful support. Today, they immediately reach the larger part of the public”, said Bosnjakovski, adding that the country was vulnerable to disinformation campaigns, especially bearing in mind the fact that the country was polarized.
Partnership and Resource Development Director of the Metamorphosis Foundation, Filip Stojanovski, shared his experience with the project Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub.
“The general objective of our project is revealing all harmful influences expressed through disinformation and similar events, starting from propaganda, all the way to various media and political manipulations – to see their flow and where they are coming from. For that, capacity needs to be built first. Lately, only a small number of factors in our society are dealing with disinformation. For them, on regional level, we primarily developed a partnership network consisting of organizations dealing with disinformation, above all with fact-checking, but also other kinds of organizations involved in issues related to media, youth and think-tanks developing research on security and other aspects, since the cooperation is limited in these two areas”, said Stojanovski.
He added that every organization from the countries of the region is working on building national forms of cooperation with other civic organizations and central institutions, while from a regional viewpoint, they cooperate on revealing cross-border disinformation that can easier adapt to local forms thereby becoming even more harmful.
“Such disinformation is linked to inter-ethnic relations in our country. In neighbouring countries where inter-ethnic problems prevail with the Albanian community, they are presented in another form from the manner in which they appear in our country. We have an additional perception coming from Serbia, and using malicious local stakeholders presenting specific ethnic structures in light worse than it is. And this is another vicious circle or spiral. We started with our Metamorphosis capacity. It is true that fact-checking is essential, but it is not enough”, added Stojanovska.
Biljana Georgievska, Executive Director of the Macedonian Media Ethical Council, stressed that self-regulation has potential and everywhere in Europe these councils never give up, but they in various ways tend to motivate the public to submit as many as possible appeals about media contents.
“Self-regulation is an excellent tool in the hands of the citizens, institutions and civil society organizations for opposing arbitrary media, ignorance, intentional and unintentional errors. Currently, this is the best monitoring of the work of the media that voluntarily advocate for unity for better quality and more influential journalism, higher standards, and against interference from both the political and business elites. Self-regulation is promotion of good quality journalism for the protection of freedom of expression and, in a wider context, for greater resilience of a democratic society. Self-regulation is defined as commitment of media professionals meaning they advocate good quality journalism in order to sustain public dialogue”, said Georgievska.
She added that experience from working with complaints and with the Appeals Commission of the Council indicates that among the hundreds established media outlets, mainly online, some do not accept such self-regulatory mechanisms and strongly reject mediation offers or retracting errors.
“Self-regulation must be promoted in the future even more. The awareness of citizens must be raised regarding the fact that media are not toys and that journalists must not be just microphone holders or invisible copy-paste people. Definitely, civic education for greater freedom of expression is much required”, added Georgievska.