Fight against disinformation - media pluralism and citizen engagement needed

February 28, 2022

The pluralistic and economically sustainable media ecosystem is the best antidote for disinformation, and the Code of Practice on Disinformation is a step in the right direction, but it needs to be improved, EU representatives and media professionals concluded at a debate on disinformation held on 23 February 2022.

The debate, organised by the Pulse of Europe - Media Trips to EU project, was held online. The head of the Western Balkans Task Force at the European External Action Service (EEAS), Jasna Jelisić, said that the Code was important, but only one element of a broader EU action to tackle disinformation.

In 2015, the European Union adopted an Action Plan against disinformation. The Code is very important because it is the first time that the platforms have engaged, on a voluntary basis, to apply self-regulation, she said.

The Code, adopted by the EU in October 2018, will function as a co-regulatory tool of the Digital Services Act and will become binding for EU members states once it is adopted.

The Digital Services Act proposes co-regulation and the introduction of legally binding provisions for all major platforms and all digital service providers covering more than 10% of EU consumers. The countries of the Western Balkans, including Serbia, will have to harmonise their national legislation with this Act when it becomes law and as such, part of the Union acquis, said the EEAS representative.

"The goal is to ensure better democratic control and oversight of large platforms," ​​said Jelisić, who praised the work of the civil society organisations and fact-checkers in the Western Balkans.

The Secretary General of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Ricardo Gutierrez, said that he believes that new laws and regulations are not needed to fight disinformation, but the creation of a media ecosystem that is pluralistic, economically sustainable and at the service of the public.

"The best antidote to disinformation is a healthy media ecosystem. The EU should support independent and professional journalism, provide decent working conditions for journalists, fight media concentration and ensure the political independence of public service media," Gutierrez said.

He assessed that the Code of Practice is not the best tool from his point of view, because it is too weak, adding that the Federation insisted on real self-regulation. He added that the Code is a tool in the right direction, but not strong enough.

Gutierrez pointed out that it is necessary for the EU to promote the transparency of those in power, because the greater the transparency, the less disinformation. He also said that citizens must be given the tools to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information.

Experiences from Serbia in tackling disinformation were shared by Bojan Cvejić, a member of the Board of the Association of Medi and the Complaints Commission of the Press Council, and Jovana Prešić, project coordinator of the Istinomer web portal.

Pointing out that propaganda and tabloid reporting in Serbia are a bigger problem than disinformation on social networks, Cvejić said that the Press Council can decide on complaints only when it receives complaints, and receives only five to 10 complaints a month. "The number would be higher if the citizens knew that there is a body that deals with that and to whom they can complain," he added.

Cvejić assessed that there is no healthy media ecosystem in Serbia, that there is no media pluralism and that the majority of mainstream media do not respect professional standards and do not check information. He assessed that most of the leading media in Serbia are tabloid, but that government officials give legitimacy to such media and praise their journalists and editors in the public sphere while discrediting everyone who is professionally engaged in information.

"The EU should also deal with how government representatives behave in the public sphere," Cvejić said.

The fact-checking portal, Istinomer, has been cooperating with Facebook, i.e. the Meta company, since July 2020, on fact-checking in Serbia. Jovana Prešić, project coordinator, said that this cooperation also covers the social network Instagram, as well as that the largest amount of disinformation was noticed in relation to the pandemic, vaccines and medicines. Prešić mentioned that Facebook makes it impossible for Istinomer and other partner fact-checking organisations to assess the truthfulness of the statements of politicians and political parties.

She noted the good cooperation with other media in the region and the world that deal with fact-checking, but also good cooperation with traditional media in Serbia.

In Serbia, in addition to Istinomer, the portals Raskrinkavanje and Fake News Tragač, as well as the Belgrade bureau of the Agence France-Presse are working on fact-checking