Between Fear, Disinformation and Oligarch-owned Media

Published: 31 October 2017

Countries:  Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Ukraine

MIL_-_profilesTo celebrate the Global Media and Information Literacy (MIL) week 2017, the Media Diversity Institute (MDI) talked with three specialists working in this field in Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Ukraine. MDI wanted to understand the level of access to information in their own countries and the ability of citizens to comprehend, evaluate and use media.

They told MDI about the Azerbaijani government’s ability to control information; the effect of the disinformation war on last year’s elections in Moldova; and how oligarchs use the media outlets they own as tools for their political and business fights. Yet, in this bleak media freedom landscape, there are some media and information literacy projects that are trying to change things.


Country: Azerbaijan

Name: Celia Davies, Head of Fundraising

Organisation: Meydan TV – a Berlin-based Azerbaijani non-profit media outlet co-founded by dissident blogger and former political prisoner Emin Milli, and exiled blogger Habib Muntezir

What is the current state of media literacy education in Azerbaijan?

The vast majority of broadcast media are state owned and state controlled and the political opposition has no access to mainstream broadcast media. On a policy level, we have seen the blocking of independent media website, but also defamation is a criminal offence (in November they extended it to cover online content). There has been a real crackdown on online content because they see that as the last remaining free space where outlets like Meydan TV have captured this part of the population engaging on digital platforms, contributing content, speaking to each other, speaking with us, sharing their thoughts.

The way the state has captured the information space is very powerful, and they use a nationalistic narrative: they accuse outlets like Meydan TV of being Armenian spies, and anti-Azerbaijani. Anything that is critical is anti-Azerbaijani and, because of the war with Armenia, nationalism is a very powerful force in Azerbaijan. Another factor is that Russian is a much less dominant language than in many of other former Soviet republics and English is not particularly widely spoken. People are really isolated and reliant on Azerbaijani language content. They cannot just go and find English and Russian content, and that means the government’s ability to control is much more powerful than it might be otherwise if people had more access to more sources. People believe into what state media say, but Meydan TV also has its audience (10 percent). But there is a climate of fear: people are terrified that they or their families will lose their jobs, or to be threatened, harassed or killed. There have been several journalists killed in the past decade and there is also self-censorship among some journalists.

How should we respond to the challenges of misinformation in Azerbaijan?

For us, the way to do it is sharing the stories of ordinary people, showing how the media is a mirror to their lives, showing the truth, and showing how it affects them. When citizens contact us with stories, we engage with them, we make them feel like their opinion matters, and what they are sharing with might be a small story but might illustrate a wider pattern. Meydan TV operates under restrictive conditions, we cannot have journalists just wondering on the street to interview anyone they want. And even if they could do this, people wouldn’t speak to them because they are from Meydan TV and they are afraid. The basic engagement is with citizen journalists, even if it’s through an anonymous person on WhatsApp. That’s a way of building trust in the media and that’s ultimately what it all comes down to. We cannot expect people to value it if they don’t trust it.

A successful MIL initiative Meydan TV has implemented.

Last April, there was a 4-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the ministry of defence published a certain number of soldiers’ deaths during the war. We were able to debunk that number and show that it was actually much higher, because people from all over the country’s families where sending us information saying ‘my son is dead, here is his picture’. We were able to use their information to show that the ministry of defence actually flat out lied. The ministry came back to us saying this is all false, and we were able to refuse all their allegations that we lied, and that was using our networks on the ground and our reputation as a trusted media.


Country: Moldova

Name: Alina Radu, Journalist

Organisation: Ziarul de Garda – investigative media organisation in Moldova doing investigative reporting in print, TV, radio, and online in Romanian and Russian language

What is the current ‘state of play’ in your country of media literacy education?

There is now a disinformation war of which we are part. We never thought it would be so big, and so destructive. We have seen during the electoral political campaigns, when people intoxicated by false information took decisions that affected the whole country as electorate. At that moment, we understood that we don’t have media literacy education at all, so some media NGOs started a media literacy campaign. We decided to work with many communities, with schools and librarians, and also with just people from villages because they are the main category who participated in the voting campaigns and they decided. It’s a huge work to be done. We are behind what propaganda managed to do. The big bad thing was done, and now we have to go behind, and manage to regain again the trust in media. This is very hard and complicated: in Moldova we have politically controlled media – the biggest part – and when politicians control the media is not about free media.

Moldova is associated with the EU and wants to have EU standards for human rights, and pro-Russian media were telling constantly that if Moldova joins or is associated with the EU, the churches will be closed, Syrians will come to Moldova, and that everybody will be gay. Thousands of people believed it.  If you go now to any of the villages in Moldova, you’ll find people who believe that and are nervous. And they deny the huge support the EU offered to Moldova to have better roads, better hospital and kindergartens, or rather they say “yes, we have better services, but we are afraid of Syrians.”

How should we respond to the challenges of misinformation in Moldova?

By education, but you have to educate educators first. Only then you can move and educate everybody. It’s a long way.

A successful MIL initiative Ziarul de Garda has implemented.

First of all, good quality journalism. We have a community that trusts us. When there is an issue of concern in the society, we write a story to explain them what is true or not, and people get back to us through letters, phone calls, visits to the newsroom saying that they understood the truth. Librarians decided to subscribe to our newspaper and offer it to others as a piece of truth. For us this is a success story, because in the past few years the circulation of newspapers in the world, as well as in Moldova, has been decreasing and our increased. When more people subscribe to a newspaper, this is a very good sign.


Country: Ukraine

Name: Andriy Kulakov, programme director

Organisation: Internews-Ukraine – one of the country’s leading media NGOs, working in media and communication market in Ukraine since 1996

What is the current ‘state of play’ in your country of media literacy education?

Media Literacy is quite critical now for our country because we are suffering from disinformation attacks from Russia starting from the Revolution of Dignity and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict starting with the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions in Ukraine. But now, looking back to our previous time, to Soviet time, we understand that this propagandistic machine was built much earlier. There are now a series of projects mainly initiated by civil society organisations and some journalistic communities, funded by international donors. My colleagues are now introducing projects aiming at the teachers in schools and universities and preparing them to be the providers of media literacy courses in the curriculum. There are several manuals on media literacy being prepared to be introduced in the curriculum at a state level.

I have to say that we are now quite protected from the direct influence of Russian channels, because our government took a lot of measures at a legislative level to ban the channels, to introduce the quotas on Ukrainian languages, and so on. But we are still suffering from indirect influence through the so called providers of Kremlin-backed messages in Ukraine. The key narrative is that Ukraine is a failed state, that the reforms are collapsing, that there is chaos in our country, and that we will have new Maidan, a new revolution and maybe the restoration of previous regime.

How should we respond to the challenges of misinformation in Ukraine?

First of all, we need to introduce the critical approach to journalistic production and material. All the mainstream media in Ukraine belong to oligarchs and every oligarch has his/her political interest. Quite often the media outlets are the tools of these political and business wars. The consumer, every citizen, should be able to critically perceive the information is offered. We need to introduce into the mind of citizens that they should trace the origin of the information, understand who is or what is the source, who the owner of the media outlet is, and who can benefit from that information. Citizens should be aware of journalistic work and standards – balances, separation of opinion from facts, no room for personal estimation of the journalist or author. I would say the CSOs together with the safe regulation body of journalistic communities should play this role together with the educational institutions.

A successful MIL initiative Internews-Ukraine has implemented.

An interactive game or training for university students in Ukraine called “Newspaper for 12 hours”. We introduced two moderators to the student community and the students had to create a newspaper for 12 hours. We taught them basic knowledge and skills about how to do a newspaper, then they themselves had to put together the team, the editorial, they selected the chief editor, the journalists, the designers, and so on, and they were trying to produce a true newspaper to be in line with all the basic journalistic standards. In this game, they gained the info and skills on how to distinguish propaganda material from the journalistic one, and we think this is the best way to do this job, because it is fun, it’s encouraging, and you are doing it by yourself, you are not just the passive object of knowledge.