The Balkan Forum and CIVIL hold a regional conference on “Attacks on democracy and human rights”

On July 28 2021, The Balkan Forum, CIVIL and members of the Civil Society Platform for Democracy and Human Rights, held a regional conference titled “Attacks on democracy and human rights: Civil society organizations in support of Western Balkans societies facing disinformation, hate speech and hybrid attacks”.

Organised into two panel discussions, the conference tackled the issue of disinformation and how it disrupts the public discourse and encourages hate speech and insulting rhetoric, including the issue of hybrid attacks and their posing threats to democracies.

Prominent speakers shared their knowledge, opinions and expertise at the European, regional and national level on the most common types and sources of disinformation, hate speech and hybrid attacks. They shared their views on how institutions and societies are coping with these issues and best practices proven to be successful in dealing with these phenomena. Speakers included Dr. Wolfgang Ressmann, Managing Director of OK-TV Ludwigshafen, Germany, Abit Hoxha, from University of Adger in Norway, Nenad Šebek, a journalist and media expert, Amina Šurković, Amina Šemsović, Dr. Erjon Curraj, Jean Monnet Module Coordinator, Vladimir Gjorgjevski, representative of “Regional Youth Cooperation Office - RYCO”, Mersiha Smajlovikj, representative of “Legis”, Marion Kraske, political analyst, Bojan Kordalov, communicologist, Snezhana Trpveska, representative of RESIS, Xhabir Deralla, Director of CIVIL, and Astrit Istrefi, Executive Director of The Balkan Forum.

It was emphasized that disinformation, hate speech, and hybrid attacks remain elementary threats to critical thinking, freedom of media, and media literacy which are crucial for the integration and democratic development of the region.

A key conclusion of the conference was that in order to diminish threats to democracies all levels of the society should be doing their work including public institutions, civil society and media.

Key highlight and statements:

“Russian propaganda, fake news, destabilization of democratic societies, are not only a problem in the Balkan region, but also in Europe. When we talk about these issues we also have a very positive thing: we have lot of supporters of democracy, supporters of human rights in Europe, in the former soviet Republics and the Balkans. We have to fight for democracy every day. We have supporters. We have to use our forces against the Russian influences. We have to fight for peace too. We have to work together between the EU and the Balkan countries, countries waiting to be members of the EU, and we have to work with civil society. We must build power against this propaganda and kleptocrats and new dictators. I think your conference is one of the way to combine media dialogue in the East with media dialogue in the Balkan in the future.” Dr Wolfgana Ressman, Managin Director of OK-TV Ludwigshafen, Germany, and the Chairman of Federal Association of Citizen Media, as well as the Chairman of the Youth4Media- Network.

 “The whole point of fake news is to decrease trust in real news. About gender issues, migration, the pandemic, the vaccines and their effectiveness. When democracies use their own legal tools to limit freedom of expression. The other thing I wanted to say, from the Kosovar perspective, we have to look at countries from a comprehensive perspective. The quality of democracy depends entirely on the quality of journalism. Your democracy is only as good as the freedom of the press. To fix these problems through a comprehensive approach, we have to rethink reforms in education, especially in the field of media literacy and understand that political participation is an obligation to a functioning democracy. I would like to add that your democracy is as good as your political participation. Freedoms don’t come as a god-given or nature-given right, but as a responsibility Freedoms do not come as a God-given right, but as a responsibility to be nurtured.” Abit Hoxha, researcher at University of Adger.

“Let me go back to the history of hybrid attacks, in the cold war era they were called psyops. Let me go further back in history, in the Trojan War, the Illiad is the first war reportage, who was the neutral observer? Homer. He belonged to the Achaean side, he was against the Trojans, so can we really consider him an objective reporter? Or if we go back to the Bible, the story of Adam and Eve, all of them are participants, they’re not objective observers. So what is new about warfare is the technology. The technology we have today has a far wider and deeper reach than ever before. In my opinion there are six things we need to do to counter these kinds of threat: media literacy and support to independent media. I am purposefully amplifying the importance of these two elements. As long as we have media literacy at the low levels we have today, it is no wonder that people will pick up on fake news, will not recognize fake civil societies, will not recognize fake media. Without media literacy people will not be able to tell the difference between genuine news and fakes news.” Nenad Šebek, journalist and media expert.

 “Since this is a phenomenon that affects almost all aspect of human rights, I was thinking about what to focus on today, so I decided to go back to my background of criminology and try to explain hybrid attacks and disinformation from our criminological point of view, along with prevention of course, in context of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Three factors create a criminal offence. The first factor is intention, the individual or the group must have the ability and knowledge. It is important to emphasize the difference between lies and factual errors. A person may make a factually incorrect statement believing it to be true. It is the intention to deceive that separates these two categories.

The second factor is attackers. The people or groups who are behind the cyber- attacks and misinformation. Some common motives are profit, revenge, political factors, and other emotional needs.

The third factor is opportunity. Opportunity for the act to be committed, which means misinformation to be transmitted. The goal of prevention strategy is to make it more difficult for potential offenders to access a target, which means increase the risk of being caught. The online media have no legal obligation to publish registration, contact or ownership info. Most online platforms are not under any kind of supervision. There are no obstacles to stop them from spreading misinformation. So we have to reduce the gain they are expecting after spreading misinformation. This can be achieved by developing critical skills and media literacy. Misinformation is poorly, or not at all, recognized as a possible threat, so there is almost no public debate for responses to it. Low awareness of cyber-security and media literacy makes population more vulnerable to crime or suitable audience for manipulation.” Amina Šurković

 “Speaking of the Serbian context, we have a good legal framework, unfortunately we do not have that in practice. Hybrid attacks are pretty much present, especially the huge growth of racism, nationalism, hate speech, hate crimes. But, unfortunately, when you see that in the paper, everything is fine, everything can be prosecuted.  Especially speaking in the case of minorities. In practice very few cases have seen their end, have seen their justice. Maybe you have caught on the news that Serbia, according to the Freedom House Report, is not considered a democracy anymore. So we have to also consider a little about these problems that are considered to be smaller than the problems we had currently, we had way bigger scandals and affairs, so when we activists talk about this we are not considered as seriously as we should be, unfortunately.” Amina Šemsović

“To tackle these threats, we need to reduce the vulnerability to our region, societies and democracy through focusing on digital rights and digital/media literacy. CSO’s can support with awareness raising and capacity development of citizens to access different digital services. Support to social groups that may not have the necessary skills, knowledge or the infrastructure to do so. For instance, marginalized communities, vulnerable groups, rural groups, elderly. We have to work on education from very young ages and do life learning. Digital rights protection is the cornerstone of digital democracy. CSO’s can monitor the quality of public digital services and hold governments accountable and push for more transparency. This can be done as coalition between CSO’s and media. CSOs need to advocate for policy dialogue between all stakeholders for the enhancement of strategic and legal framework on digitalization and data protection, something that our region has done baby steps.“ Dr. Erjon Curraj, Jean Monnet Module Coordinator.  

“We are living in the 21st. century where information goes fast, and information is power, but people are manipulating information. That is why we need more state regulation. Media unfortunately divides people instead of uniting them. We have to teach young people to think analytically and critically and figure out what the media is trying to say. We have students writing about life in the dormitories, or how COVID influences online education, but generally we need more stories that unite us, instead of divide us. We really have to focus on both formal and informal education. There is one training that deals with this, but we need more. If we use media just to manipulate each other we will stay in the same place and never progress, and have even more youth migration” Vladimir Gjorgjevski, representative of “Regional Youth Cooperation Office- RYCO.

 “Hate speech is actually happening in the Balkans. The countries in the region are more fragile to fake news and hate speech, and they affect our society and make our democracy more fragile. You can see how human rights are being put aside. Attacks on me are based on several factors: my gender, my ethnicity, my religion. You are scared to go outside because so many people are attacking you. I would like to say do not go to the public prosecutor’s office because it is very disturbing. At the end of my interview she was attacking me, even though I was the victim. She said leave social media behind, take care of your home, your kids. Nothing happens, the institutions are very silent when we speak about hate speech and discrimination.” Mersiha Smailovich, representative of LEGIS.

“I would like to focus on the global level, but also on the journalistic perspective. We have three main pillars of democracy, legislators, executive power and judiciary, and in an ideal democracy we have a fourth pillar which is the media. We have a bipolarity – a fact based professional journalism, but on the other hand, we have a flow of disinformation and fake news. And this trend is becoming more and more global. People no longer believe what the professional media is providing, they get their information from questionable sources, such as Facebook and Instagram.” Marion Kraske, political analyst.

“There are two main questions. First is how to encourage debate without hate speech and discrimination, and the second is how to make news (real news) more worthy or clickable than fake news. What can public institutions do in this fight? Firstly, act. They should act, not talk. They should be more effective in sanctioning the criminal actions. Secondly, encouraging debate with inclusiveness, especially with differing opinions to the ruling party, but not opinions that contain hate speech or discrimination. Third, creating moderation policies that have to clearly state what is not acceptable on the social media of public institutions, because it goes against the laws or is problematic. Fourth, we should focus on education. Fifth and final, each public institution must give professional services timely, giving equal access to everyone. This is one part of the start of the discussion, and will help us to win the battles against fake news and against hate speech and discrimination. If we do not take concrete measures now, it might be too late later” Bojan Kordalov, communicologist.

“My main focus would be where to find the solution, the base to the best approach we can adopt to tackle the problem of the influence of the new technologies of our societies, and more specifically the problem of the huge spread of disinformation. There hasn’t been much status in our country to these issues. Three years ago there was a study, a huge survey on the individual levels of media literacy in the country. There are also some other studies why the audience in our country behave or is so much receptive to disinformation. Mainly the knowledge that is achieved in social research in other countries explains the reasons why the audience behaves like this. It is a fact that social media in our country as well are becoming the main way of accessing news, especially for the younger generations. It is also known that social media continues to contribute to the increasing user generated information, which includes false claims, fabricated news, conspiracy theories and hate speech and so on. But let’s not forget that this wealth of information in digital news outlets has revolutionized and democratized politics. The public can scrutinize what politicians are doing and comment on it almost instantly on the social networks.  Let’s not forget the positive aspect of the problem. Why can’t people recognize what is credible news and what is disinformation? The solution of the problem is not straightforward. Which approach is best? To apply restrictive or positive measures? To ban some content or to raise awareness of the population. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Information is extremely hard to regulate because it spreads like wildfire on social media. On the other side, campaigns and short term educational programs can partially make changes in the awareness of the population to recognize disinformation. The best solution would be to combine the two approaches. To be extremely careful when introducing restrictive measures, but at the same time, to implement thorough and long-term interventions in other societal areas.

My argument is that media and information literacy cannot be the solution to the problem of the disruptive public discourse if its focus is not on developing critical thinking skills among the population. This is a very complex and slow process that can be achieved through a carefully designed reform of the educational process at all levels.

I think the biggest problem with our education today is that it doesn’t teach children to think critically. I am not optimistic that the solution will be visible soon” Snezhana Trpveska, representative of RESIS. 

“We are Living in the Middle of a Hybrid War. This is a high time to recognize that democratic and progressive societies are threatened by the abuse of the democratic instruments themselves. More precisely, democracies are under attack by sophisticated, complex and persistent propaganda machineries, intelligence and counterintelligence agencies, underground and criminal structures, fake civil societies, religious circles, businesses, media, academia, etc. etc. All of them are a part of the hybrid warfare that is waged by authoritarian regimes for quite some time now, and particularly intensified after the invasion of the Russian Federation on Ukraine. Sociopolitical circumstances within the country, the region and much wider, are such that provide unlimited space for fierce disinformation and hate campaigns against progressive individuals and groups in the society. The attacks against civil society activists and journalists are countless. It is not just a hate propaganda by some angry group of radicals and bitter trolls. It is more than obvious that a whole propaganda machinery stands behind a multi-year continuous attacks on civil society actors, particularly those that are visible and influential, active on daily basis, such as CIVIL” Xhabir Deralla, president of CIVIL.

“CIVIL and Balkan Forum are both members of the Civil Society Platform for Democracy and Human Rights, a diverse network of civil society organizations and activists from the six Western Balkans countries. We have united our efforts to give an example, to show that we can work together and create a united front to tackle the issues that are holding back democracies, progress, and future of our countries.  We have presented joint statements and manifestos in numerous summits taking place within the Berlin Process. We are working to strengthen relationships between civil society, media, youth, academia, diaspora, and business sectors in the Balkan region.

We are witnessing different forms of warfare, extremely sophisticated but not unnoticed or undetected, that are threatening our countries and societies, are having a severe impact in our democracies, and are disturbing peace and progress in our region.

Propaganda, disinformation, fake news (however we name and define them) are proving to be enormously influential, in not only disseminating and mobilizing but in almost having a decisive impact in elections, referendums, peace and Euro-Atlantic integration processes, including the current pandemic and vaccination. These forms of warfare are utilized by various actors across the globe and in our region to strengthen their patronage networks, aid trans-national crime and corruption, deepen inter and intra state and community divisions, distract social cohesion, and support raising authoritarianism and ethno-nationalist policies and rhetoric.

This is why we are finding ourselves in such a position that we seem to have lost our capabilities to predict, let alone anticipate, such profound threats that are making our future more insecure. 

What is also proven is that we find it easier to blame others and identify and assess the impact, but less so in taking the blame ourselves for not acting on time and decisively to protect our democracies, countries and societies from becoming more vulnerable, less resilient to such threats. 

So, the point is that, today, at this conference, we are looking beyond identifying and assessing the impact, and focusing on how we can become more vigilant and act individually and collectively to counter such threats.

We can learn a lot from each other, we can learn from other examples. We can work on them and build on successes we are witnessing.” Astrit Istrefi, Executive Director of The Balkan Forum