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Media must tackle disinformation during elections

Leading media professionals call for united action to build trust

Kyiv, December 4th: As part of the launch event for USAID-Internews’ new five-year Media Program in Ukraine, close to 100 representatives of leading Ukrainian media organizations and media outlets took part in a “hard talk” style discussion titled #Informed_public – Responsible journalism that focused on the role of media in elections.

The hard talk began with presentations from the USAID Regional Mission Director to Ukraine Susan Fritz and Internews’ Senior Vice President for Global Programs Marjorie Rouse from Washington, D.C. about the goals of the new and largest ever media support program in Ukraine.

Disinformation represents a serious risk to the upcoming Ukrainian elections. Susan Fritz spoke about technological advances and the impact of this on our lives.

“Technology has drastically changed our lives. Who would have thought that 10 years ago a small hand-held device will become a major source of information we receive daily. At the same time, technology helped create a chaotic media world, where facts and fakes are conflated – and often without any visible difference,” she added.

Taras Petriv, President of Suspilnist Foundation, who moderated the panels, said he had not recalled in a long time attending a similar event where it was so packed with participants. “It is a good sign, as today our media community needs unity as never before,” he added.

Iryna Bekeshkina, Director of Democratic Initiatives Foundation (DIF), said that this year DIF recorded falling trust in every institution – the army, church, volunteers and media. “Total mistrust in our society is one of dangers we face during these upcoming elections. Media must reflect these trends and take them into consideration,” she said.

“Fake news, populism and social media networks have a negative impact on media market – but they all have shown us the real weight of a true word. Today we as journalists should unite around our common professional values to save responsible journalism,” Oksana Romaniuk, Director of the Institute of Mass Information, said.

Tomas Fiala, CEO at Dragon Capital and owner of the Novoye Vremia weekly news magazine talked about the difficulty of sustaining media companies without adequate advertising and investment from other industry sectors in Ukraine. He concluded: “All this creates an unhealthy situation in the market. I would like to see channels financed by Moscow disappear from the Ukrainian media space.” 

Regional media outlets find it particularly hard to survive in the current economic conditions. But the role the regional media could play in future election processes is key, according to Natalia Ligachova, Head at the Detector Media. “As our polls suggest, Ukrainians are ‘united’ today in their negative attitudes. In particular, they feel equally negative about corruption, poor economy and the IMF. In our view, regional media ought to play an extremely important role. And we welcome the fact that the new USAID-Internews’ program will prominently focus on regional media development too,” she said.

Most of the speakers spoke in favor of media outlets drawing “red lines” and refusing money to produce negative stories about a client’s political opponents, for example. Other “red lines” involved declining to have guest experts who hide their political affiliations, and making a black list of online media sources that should never be quoted because they are frequent purveyors of disinformation. For instance, Yulia Mostova, Editor-in-Chief of the Mirror of the Week newspaper, said that journalists needed to attach a background note to experts and political scientists they invite a comment from.

 “This is particularly true for our colleagues working on TV – when officers from various political parties’ headquarters act as “independent experts” in the TV newsrooms. For 25 years of our existence – our weekly has never published jeansa materials in our political section. We have printed advertorials for politicians but we clearly brand those as political advertisements. Unfortunately, many media outlets ignore this rule, while publishing interviews with politicians running for high office without clear branding,” Mostova said.

In the view of Tetyana Lebedeva, Chairwoman of Supervisory Board of the National Public Service Broadcasting Company, “responsibility, reputation and professionalism – these are the three fundamentals that Ukrainian journalism should be based on.”

In addition, Ukraine needs more positive stories about what’s going well. According to Andriy Kulakov, Internews-Ukraine’s Program Director, “Western diplomats often tell us that they find it challenging to build up Ukraine’s image to attract foreign investments when Ukrainians themselves are so keen on generating doom and gloom. We have many victories and positive changes in the regions that make great stories – let’s tell them,” he added.

Internews’ Senior Vice President Marjorie Rouse said: “On behalf of Internews I want to say that we are fully behind Ukraine in these difficult times. It’s exciting to be part of assisting Ukraine’s hugely important reform process, and helping media improve their skills and sustainability, so that Ukrainians get access to reliable, professional news and information they can trust.” 

The discussion was streamed live on YouTube (in Ukrainian) and the speakers’ key messages can be found on Facebook by searching for this hashtag: #Informed_public.