BRUSSELS – Serbia, Bulgaria, and other countries in the region have media that openly favor in Russian side in its aggression against Ukraine and deliberately release disinformation on this conflict, while at the same time, they get funding from the West for their operations, it was said during the discussion organized in Brussels on Tuesday, organized by Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI).
The debate heard that large Western companies operating in the Western Balkans region often advertise in the so-called Kremlin media, despite the fact that their international policies and guidelines forbid this, as does their publicly voiced commitment to the fight against disinformation, and not just in the context of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine.
Titled “Defunding Disinformation in the Balkans: How International Brands Support Russia’s Agenda,” the event outlined how global brands and advertising agencies risk strengthening Kremlin influence, thereby contributing to a deteriorating information landscape in an already politically unstable region.
MEP Andrey Kovatchev assessed that Democracies must build an immune system to resist forces that are attacking democratic values, including through disinformation. “The European Union must become a leader in protecting free speech while regulating the online sphere and promoting free media against disinformation”, Kovatchev stated.
Peter Horrocks, long-time BBC director, said the media in Serbia and Bulgaria are not strong enough, adding that there is not enough funding for quality and independent journalism.
He explained that instead, through advertisements, the money from the West goes to the websites and television stations that have low editorial standards and support the pro-Russian narrative.”This is why it is important that the advertisers who appear in such media understand this problem”, Horrocks adds.
The data of the Center for Research, Transparency, and Accountability (CRTA) shows that over 65 percent of advertisers in the media that report negatively on the European Union (EU) and positively on Russian propaganda – come from the West.
Some of them don’t know how their advertising money is spent, because that kind of decision-making often goes through middlemen who choose the media in which to advertise. The problem escalated during the coronavirus pandemic when many companies, without knowing, financed media and portals that spread disinformation, organizers stated.
Amid growing concerns over the impact of disinformation on security and democracy in the region, the panel emphasized the responsibility that the European Union, international brands, and advertising agencies bear in ensuring corporate advertising strategies do not contribute to the promotion of Russian influence and erosion of media freedom in the Balkans.rus