January 21, 2015

What to do about Russian propaganda

Reuters/Scanpix
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (C) gives an interview to federal TV channels at the Ostankino TV Center in Moscow December 6, 2013. Medvedev on Friday called participation by foreign officials in the political events unfolding in Ukraine "interference", rebuking the German foreign minister for a visit to an opposition protest camp.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (C) gives an interview to federal TV channels at the Ostankino TV Center in Moscow December 6, 2013. Medvedev on Friday called participation by foreign officials in the political events unfolding in Ukraine "interference", rebuking the German foreign minister for a visit to an opposition protest camp.

In the recent tempest in a teacup between Estonia and Finland (Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja accused Estonia of being overly nationalistic in what he said was a late start to providing Russian-language news), the focus was mislaid. The real question is how the European Union should counter the onslaught of propaganda from the Russian Federation. In this light, the initiative from Estonia, Great Britain, Denmark and Lithuania to establish a coordination mechanism on the EU level seems eminently reasonable.

At a Finnish Institute of International Affairs seminar held in January in Helsinki, a few participants did express reservations, saying that it looked like the EU wanted to establish a ministry of truth and thus twist the freedom of speech in its own way. Even if politicians really thought the EU capable of having such an Orwellian institution, it wouldn’t be possible after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Freedom of speech is currently more salient in Europe than it ever was.
The point of the initiative from four countries is the fact that as a whole, the EU has money to fight Russian propaganda. Estonia has long realized that a small country its size doesn’t have resources to mount an equal counteroffensive to Russian TV programming. It’s a different story with the EU’s resources.
The online publication EuObserver highlighted the Polish opinion from a recent meeting of EU foreign ministers. According to Poland, over a dozen EU member states support the Russian counterpropaganda initiative. Estonian Foreign Minister Keit Pentus-Roosimannus as well reports on her Facebook profile that the European Council will in March start preparing specific proposals for combating Russian state propaganda.
And so it seems that politically things are in motion and no one will accuse Estonia of being too nationalistic.
Still, there are some questions. The main question appears to be about asymmetry. Russia treats the media as part of hybrid war, using lies, half-truths, trolling and influence peddling as its weapons, but the EU is not planning anything along these lines. At the end of the day, we are talking about the press here, and freedom of speech is one of the cornerstone values in Europe.
Yet how to ensure that the prospective channel both is independent and has EU financing? Perhaps one avenue is to create an independent board. In any case, journalists must be given confidence that they are free to do their work.
Media pluralism – something Russia essentially lacks – could also keep the channel accountable. If the European Union channel manages to do something discreditable, it will be sure to be covered by other European media outlets. Russian channels will of course also join the fray, and indeed that is why we must be very circumspect in setting up this new EU channel.
What might be most problematic for the channel is the expectation of some bureaucrats and politicians that the attitudes of Russian-speaking inhalants will change overnight. There will be a temptation to report to management on results and success stories. Unfortunately, people’s attitudes toward the media will not change very rapidly. Postimees daily is an example – it moved most of its offices from Tartu to Tallinn in 1998. Around the mid-2000s, many still felt Postimees was a Tartu newspaper.
So we shouldn’t expect overnight miracles. The founders of the new Eurochannel have to understand that unlike the Cold War era where the mission of the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe was to supply truthful information to people behind the Iron Curtain, Russian-speakers today have every opportunity to get true information. But how to get them to change the channel on their remotes? That’s the big question. The long-awaited change will not come quick; years of work are needed for this. Yet doing nothing is not the answer, either, especially considering the increasing effort Russia is pouring into its propaganda channels.
This piece, originally in Estonian, aired on Retro FM’s European news on Friday. 21 January.

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