Local governance Ukraine

Ukraine’s lessons: Fighting disinformation and defending democracy (DRI event)

Ahead of International Democracy Day, DRI and Heinrich-Böll-Foundation (HBS) organised on 13 September in Berlin a discussion with prominent Ukrainian and international experts, who fight at the forefront against fake news and contribute to reform Ukraine.

Increased media literacy was identified as one of the main measures to prevent disinformation, according to the speakers of the first panel.  The second panel focused on the way forward for Ukrainian civil society. “Are self-organised activities of civil society enough to achieve reforms?” – was the main question of the debate. 

Fake news – problem fixed in Ukraine?

There is little doubt that fake news can represent a threat to the national security of Ukraine and official state bodies are facing a challenging task of countering propaganda without limiting the freedom of speech – stated Dmytro Zolotukhin, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Information Policy of Ukraine. Other panellists criticised bans of certain journalists from entering Ukraine. “Independent journalistic activities should be separated from cases of spread of disinformation and hate speech” – argued Yevhen Fedchenko, founder of Stopfake.org.

While restrictive measures remain in the hands of the state structures, such initiatives as stopfake.org are offering tools and information for increasing media literacy and help an audience to better identify what is fake. Therefore, the journalistic community could help in upholding standards of journalism and reveal propagandist efforts. “In Ukraine, this problem is fixed.” – argued Popova, senior communication expert at NGO “Information Security”, arguing that Ukrainians have become much more aware when confronted with news and less likely to believe propaganda. Other speakers agreed on the progress made, but highlighted that the disinformation campaigns not over and there is a lot to be done still.

Civil society: “The reality is nice but not brilliant”

“If civil society does not transform itself into real political structure, it remains a player in a vacuum talking to itself and it will not contribute to democratisation” – argued Susann Worschech, Research associate at the European University Viadrina. Oleg Rybachuk, an initiator of several civil society organisations disagreed.  He stated that if governmental structures are corrupt, the only way forward is for people to self-organise and achieve reforms.

The question of foreign donors was raised during the discussion, in view of criticism that parts of civil society are isolated and tend to respond more to donors than the needs of society. Andreas Prothmann, Head of the Ukraine Task Force, Federal Foreign Office highlighted Germany’s proactive role in Ukraine, both as a bilateral donor and through contribution to the support of the European Union towards civil society.

“We only consider a country stable, when there is a McDonalds open […], but [as Ukraine] we are important not only as a place for western brands, we are also important as a brand of civil society movements.” – said Andrei Kurkov, Ukrainian novelist and independent thinker.  Kurkov highlighted that Ukraine shall create its own model of civil society, rather than trying to imitate the partners abroad. “There is a need to change the approach” – he insisted, adding that Ukrainian civil society shall find its own way forward and better define its role in Ukraine.

The overall assessment of the state of the Ukrainian civil society remained positive, in the words of Andrey Kurkov “the reality is nice but not brilliant”.

The discussion was followed by the screening of Tim White’s documentary “Nothing but Lies: Fighting Fake News”.  You can watch the videos from the debate on our Facebook page.

Around 100 participants attended the debate, which was moderated by Matthew Karnitschnig, POLITICO's chief Europe correspondent.

Photo courtesy: Stephan Roehl