Leading a “battle between democracy and authoritarianism” | UKTN | 21.06.2022

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As the 2022 World Media Forum continued at UKTN’s Bonn headquarters on Tuesday, exiled Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar told the ‘Shaping the Future of Journalism in War’ panel that in a single decade, repression of the Kremlin against independent journalism had facilitated the spread of propaganda and polarized political discourse, allowing the state to easily isolate and stifle critical voices.

“The war against independent media in Russia has been short and ruthless,” said Zygar, who worked in the country until the invasion of Ukraine. Although he and his fellow freelance journalists had long been harassed and intimidated by the Kremlin, he used to be confident about the impact their work had on Russian audiences. “I was pretty sure we had the full attention of the public and it would be impossible to destroy us,” he said. “But I was wrong.”

Drawing on their experiences, Zygar and fellow panelists – Ukrainian journalist Angelina Kariakina, German Commissioner for Culture and Media Claudia Roth and European Commissioner for Transparency and Values ​​Vera Jourova – explained how the war has exacerbated divisions and polarization that threaten democracy and freedom of expression.

Propaganda Wars

The 2022 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders in May indicated a double rise in polarization amplified by disinformation – fueling divisions within countries, within regions and across the world.

Such divisive conditions provide the backdrop for “a battle between democracy and authoritarianism,” Roth said.

Claudia Roth, German Commissioner for Culture and Media, with a microphone in her hand

“Propaganda is a powerful weapon,” says Roth

In this war, “propaganda is a powerful weapon,” Roth said.

The European Union has taken steps to regulate digital platforms.

“Spreading false information has become a way to make money for big social media companies,” Jourova said. “This must stop.”

Vera Jourova looks at the camera, an EU flag behind her

Jourova called for tougher measures to regulate big tech companies.

The algorithms used in social media, Jourova said, reduce exposure to diverse sources of information and opposing points of view, creating opinion bubbles and promoting political polarization. In this way, social media “takes away our elasticity, our tolerance and our democratic mindset”.

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EU countries could do more to get digital platforms to invest more in their fact-checking structures, Jourova said.

Survive to reconcile

The struggle for the survival of free media also occurs on a more existential level.

“In the case of my country, our main concern is how to survive the next day while we do our job,” said Kariakina, news officer at Ukrainian public broadcaster UA:PBC. “As Ukrainian journalists, we are injured, killed, mobilized, tortured or experience all these things while working.”

Close-up of Angelina Kariakina speaking into a microphone

Kariakina said reconciliation between Russians and Ukrainians would first require justice

As of June 21, at least 12 journalists have been confirmed killed in Ukraine’s combat zones, according to the Journalists Protection Committee. Others have been reported missing, kidnapped or killed in unknown circumstances.

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“People usually ask Ukrainian journalists if they are neutral in this conflict, if they also cover opinions on the other side,” Kariakina said. Being personally involved in the story of the war doesn’t make their coverage any less professional, she added.

“Covering this war is not about neutrality and balance,” Kariakina said. “It’s about standing up for the obvious truth,” she said.

Kariakina detailed a grim situation in which dialogue between invading Russia and invaded Ukraine becomes impossible. With all the divisions that have grown during the current war, is there any conceivable strategy for reconciliation?

International law has established clear procedures for reconciliation and peacebuilding between nations. These include truth-seeking committees identifying perpetrators of war crimes, offenders and perpetrators facing justice, and victims receiving reparations.

By documenting human atrocities and suffering during war, journalists make this dialogue possible, Kariakina told UKTN after the panel.

“What we need is justice,” Kariakina said. “There is no reconciliation without justice.”

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