Global Lessons on Media Manipulation from Eastern Europe

Democracy is under threat worldwide due to waning information integrity, but civil society can counter media manipulation without violating fundamental freedoms.

© Dorin Nicolaescu-Musteață

Democracy is under threat worldwide due to waning information integrity, but civil society can counter media manipulation without violating fundamental freedoms.

The setbacks to global democracy over the past decade, identified by Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report, can be attributed in part to the fact that electorates are increasingly being misinformed by politically captured media or poor journalism. At the same time, the emerging threat of technology-driven disinformation is causing some societies to overcompensate by adopting legislation that contradicts press freedom principles.

The challenge of the next decade will be to address media manipulation and disinformation without sacrificing freedom of expression. Moldova provides clear examples of this tradeoff, and the necessary solutions for that country—investment in media literacy and an independent press council—could also be applied worldwide. These two measures can be effective in counteracting threats to information integrity regardless of the source and without eroding the protections that define democracy.

Buying up the competition

In 2008, a communications researcher warned that the increasing number of content providers in the modern media market was misleading because ownership was becoming more concentrated. Indeed, media ecosystems worldwide have seen strategic acquisitions and ownership shell-games that employ sophisticated legal or political tactics.

For example, Moldova has a history of media outlets being “captured” by political interests.  These outlets rely on their politically connected owners—rather than advertising revenue—for financing, which breeds the reporting biases and disinformation that make true democracy impossible. The Moldovan media market is also highly concentrated, giving top owners the means to maintain powerful political positions. To address ownership concentration, Moldova passed a law capping the number of broadcast licenses per individual. In response, however, some politicians simply transferred legal control to loyal subordinates.

Targeted efforts like this law have failed because circumvention of legal restrictions is endemic in Moldova. But blunter initiatives present another problem: They restrict critical freedoms of the press and speech. For instance, the so-called “media propaganda law” effectively bans Russian news broadcasts and analytical programming within Moldova, in violation of international norms and standards of free expression. In reality, the “media propaganda law” is less about fighting disinformation and more a ploy to crowd out unwanted market competition. Clearly, though, overly broad strokes like this tend to cut into the bones of democracy.

Finding the right balance via civil society

Naturally, countries differ greatly in terms of public information integrity—the open and consistent availability of media coverage that is not intended to persuade observers through deception. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Norway first on its World Press Freedom Index, citing a lack of censorship and political pressure alongside effective civil society and laws against ownership concentration. The key here is that the regulation focuses on the structure of the market, which, from a freedom of expression standpoint, is less damaging than regulation of content. The rest is up to civil society.

There are two ways civil society (and the international donor community that supports it) can create alternatives to legislative restrictions on freedom of expression: promoting media literacy and creating effective press councils.

Promising media literacy tactics include building introductory courses into high school curriculums and offering classes for adults and the journalistic community on how to scrutinize information and check sources. Norway’s media outlets have joined forces to create an online media literacy resource for high school students.

Estonia is the highest-ranking Eastern European country on the RSF World Press Freedom Index (12). It would have ranked even higher if not for 2010 legal amendments requiring journalists to reveal their sources for stories on serious crimes. (Although there is a public interest component to this rule, it carries longer-term consequences, such as discrediting journalists and discouraging people with valuable information from coming forward. This is why nonlegislative approaches are so valuable in the media space.) There are several lessons Moldova can (and often does) take from Estonia, such as the structure of its press council, a nonprofit association of media producers and other stakeholders that reviews complaints regarding false material published by content providers.

Moldova, too, has a press council, but it has little public recognition and relies overwhelmingly on the contributions of few individuals. Its bylaws are similar to those in Estonia, but Moldova’s version has been unable to replicate the Estonian press council’s influence and relationship with the journalistic community. Press councils obtain legitimacy from broad participation, which is difficult to achieve in the early stages of an organization’s development.

The 2018 Moldova Media Policy Forum brought together over 100 representatives from media, government, civil society, and the international donor community to discuss how to create a more transparent media ecosystem in Moldova. The forum, which was cited by two dozen local media outlets, is an example of how to begin raising public awareness even when there are broad gaps in the media environment. However, getting a press council to the optimal position within society requires ongoing financial and consultative support.

Media literacy: A critical life skill

Extreme cases like Moldova should not detract from information integrity issues in even the most highly developed media markets, such as the United States. Schoolchildren are taught to understand the world around them via courses in math, science, language, and the arts, but not in media literacy. The information space is evolving faster than standard curriculums, and today’s students will encounter serious challenges to freedom of thought as they grow up.

All societies should build information evaluation components into their high school curriculums, support media ethics classes for adults and the journalistic community, and highlight the critical role of nongovernmental press councils in holding media outlets accountable. This is the only way to retain fundamental freedoms while fostering the kind of informed electorate that true democracy requires.