Interview with Piers Cazalet, Head of Press and Media and Deputy Spokesperson at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. The interview was conducted at the Belgrade Security Forum 2018, where Cazalet was one of the speakers.

European Western Balkans: The first question will be a general one – What kind of actions does NATO take to address the problem of fake news and disinformation?

Piers Cazalet: Firstly, we see fake news as more of an irritant rather than a threat. It is not something that fundamentally undermines what NATO is and what NATO does. That being said, it is something we have to address.

We have to stay aware of the fake news and disinformation that is out there, which we do through our robust system of monitoring. We have to choose what we are going to respond to. We work very closely with allies and partners in terms of looking at the fake news challenge and addressing particular instances that come up. But, overall, it is an irritant, it is something that we have to work on, but it is not a fundamental threat.

EWB: Do you see the Western Balkans as an important region when it comes to “information war” between Russia and the West, which could be visible worldwide?

PC: Firstly, you talk about the so-called “information war” between Russia and the West, and it is not really the way we see it. We do not see an information war, nor spheres of influence as a concept. What is important for us is that we remain transparent and committed to telling the truth and exposing the truth. If others choose to use information in a different way, that is something we can deal with.

In the Western Balkans, we have seen one of the regions which has a problem of disinformation. This could be related to particular events, for example the current name deal between the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece, which is going through the Parliament in Skopje at the moment. In advance to the referendum, there was a lot of disinformation out in the country. Previously, with the accession of Montenegro, again, we have seen this information coming into Montenegrin information space.

In these cases, we work very closely with the governments involved. We look at the fake news and decide if there is really something important that we want to tackle, or just leave it because it is not getting traction, and then we work on those bases.

Once again, this is not a war. It is certainly a daily battle, but not a war.

EWB: What do you see as main the challenge of Western Balkans in this regard? Is it fake news, some sort of foreign information campaign or something else?

PC: Sometimes it can be fake news, which historically has been a problem in the region. Sometimes it can be propaganda, which is very different from fake news. You need to have robust messages with which you can rebut propaganda with. Sometimes, propaganda comes from the outside countries.

What can also be disturbing are direct threats. We’ve seen for example, in the case of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, direct threats from the current and former Russian Ambassadors, who have said that if the country joins NATO, it would automatically become “a target”.

Our policy is that it is up to individual countries to decide which security arrangements they choose. If the country wants to join NATO, it is more than welcome, with the agreement of all the allies, but it is not up to third countries to have a veto on that.

If, as in the case of Serbia, the country does not want to join NATO, that is absolutely fine. It may want to cooperate with NATO, in which case we can find a level of partnership that works, and we are very happy with that as well. But it is fundamentally for that country and for NATO allies to decide if the country will join NATO or not, it is not for the third country to veto.

EWB: When it comes to Serbia, there is a sort of paradox – most of the mainstream media pursue a very strong anti-NATO campaign, which diminishes the support for the Alliance among citizens, while at the same time the actual cooperation between Serbia and NATO is strengthening. Do you think this might jeopardise the cooperation along the way?

PC: I do not think so, we have seen a good level of cooperation that has been increasing in recent years. We work very closely with the (Serbian) government and Serbian Armed Forces as well. The level of cooperation is very practical and pragmatic – we see benefits for both sides, NATO and Serbia.

We need to find a better way for communicating those benefits to the Serbian public, but the level of cooperation works well, it is increasing and I do not think it is threatened by some of the negative opinions you have mentioned.

EWB: What kind of actions do you think that NATO and Serbia should undertake to address this issue and increase the visibility of its cooperation among the citizens? This kind of information is frequently not available to the wider public.

PC: There are times when we try quite hard. Earlier this month, we had a very big joint exercise with Serbia, arranged partially by NATO and partially by the Serbian Ministry of Interior. This was a joint civil-military exercise on disaster response, where the scenario was a major earthquake in the region, with substantial infrastructure damage and casualties, and the exercise was getting civilan and military elements in NATO countries and in Serbia to cooperate together on disaster response.

The exercise involved about 40 countries and 2000 participants. It had quite a lot of coverage in Serbian media, and it was mostly a positive coverage from what I saw. So, maybe we need to find more of these large-scale, high-profile activities that we can carry out with Serbia, to try to explain more what NATO is about and what kind of relations it wants to have with Serbia.

EWB: Is your impression that the media image of NATO is actually improving? There have been more exercises and several other activities in the past couple of years.

PC: I think it “comes and goes”. We see in our engagement with the Serbian media that there are times when we have a lot of interest and queries from it. We would like to see that engagement increase even more.

We accept that the Serbian media does not have to slavishly agree with NATO policies and everything that NATO says. We are very open for a robust debate. What is important for us is that facts and our statements are correctly reported, even if it is a part of a wider debate, where some of NATO’s activities are criticized in the media. That’s what democracy and the media is all about.

We would like to see this kind of engagement we would like to have with Serbian media. We reach out as much as possible and I would encourage that to continue in the future.