PODGORICA – Western Balkan region is becoming increasingly vulnerable to foreign information manipulation and resilience in the region remains weak, it is said today on the 2023 EU-WB Media Literacy Conference organized by the Delegation of the European Union to Montenegro.
“Information manipulation and interference pose a huge threat to our democracies by aiming to capture the hearts and minds of people and to cloud their judgment and their ability to understand”, said Oana Cristina Popa, EU Ambassador to Montenegro.
Popa also noted that malicious disinformation campaigns, especially in the WB region, combined with the technological advancement of the internet and social media show a dire need for an effective response to these challenges.
She also mentioned that the European External Action Service (EEAS) has diligently monitored, analyzed, and countered disinformation since 2015, thus gaining substantial experience, insights, and understanding of the third country’s efforts to influence the information environment.
“Our studies showed that the Western Balkan region is becoming increasingly vulnerable to foreign information manipulation, and that is why fighting disinformation officially became part of the latest European Commission enlargement package”, Popa explained.
She added that resilience in the region remains weak which is partly due to the low media literacy, low trust in institutions, limited independent and professional journalism and a low level of media freedom.
“Disinformation is as old as the media. But it is especially dangerous when it aims to collapse democratic processes and spread distrust in the institutions”, said Tamara Vujović, Minister of Culture and Media in Montenegro.
According to Vujović, the phenomenon of disinformation is not only a problem of the Western Balkans but also larger systems and countries. She said that this phenomenon is present in all segments of the media, thus recognizing false information and doing fact-checking represents the basic form of literacy today.
„Democracy cannot be taken for granted but must be invested in daily “, said Vujović, adding that it is necessary to expand the media policies and improve penalties for media that violate the standards of professional reporting.
Vujović also mentioned the threat of strategic disinformation which leads to the control of social processes and represents a legal problem for democracy since it abuses freedoms and tends to destroy them from within.
Tamara Branković, Deputy Program Director in Crta from Serbia, said that information manipulation is a mechanism of ruling in Serbia, adding that information manipulation is daily disseminated to mainstream channels which the state uses to create a sort of parallel reality, control the public sphere and preserve the power in Serbia.
Branković explained that in Serbia information manipulation tends to „blend together“ various types of narratives which are connected to the point of vilifying anyone who has any kind of democratic intention.
„The problem of disinformation is the problem of malign information influences“, said Milica Kovačević, Program Director in CDT from Montenegro, and added that the problem of malign information influences hasn’t been recognized on different levels in the Western Balkan countries. She explained that none of the countries has a satisfactory legal framework, strategies, or institutions.
“We need a systemic approach which needs to come through the cooperation of all sectors of society, including the government”, highlighted Filip Stojanovski, Partnership and Resource Development Director in Metamorphosis from North Macedonia. He said that the North Macedonian government, unlike other governments in the region, expresses political will to start with this approach.
She explained that people who can be called “agents of chaos”, the ones who bring pro-Kremlin narratives try to insert themselves into the political discourse and become political candidates and established political parties.
“This is where there are no safeguards because that’s a part of democracy. That’s a part of democratic values. Everybody can do it. And it is where we see that this is what our adversaries exploited. They exploit the freedom of speech. They exploit other democratic values. So we need to be aware of that as a society“, concluded Urbanavičiūtė.