Eurointegrators’ with Tetiana Popova. Interview with Michael Abramowitz, Freedom House president (02.10.2018)

In “Eurointegrators,” media expert and ex-Deputy Minister for Information Policy of Ukraine Tetiana Popova sits down with diplomats, heads of international organizations, and Ukrainian power brokers to discuss Ukraine’s European integration.

In this episode, the guest is Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House since February 2017.

The show is produced by a Ukrainian NGO Information Security and Oboz.TV.

See the text version of the interview below:

Popova: Hi! I’m Tetiana Popova. My guest today is President of Freedom House, Michael Abramowitz.
There is a big question, how from one point of view to keep freedom of speech, and from another point of view, to stand against fake news and disinformation. What is your opinion about it?

Abramowitz: It is a huge issue on a huge problem for the world. There are not only in your country but all over the world, including the United States and Western Europe. Can you keep free speech in an area which many different entities, governments and non-governments entities can produce false narratives, false news. And our position of freedom as you can do by respecting freedom of speech, freedom of a press, freedom of independent media. I would say that there are two phenoms that we quite concern about. Maybe more, but there are two that I want to highlight for you today. One is that we have many governments including the government of the USA, including the government of Russia, that describe as fake news, what is really authentic news. But it is just the news that they don’t like. And this is phenomenal from all over the world. You see many governments all over the world describing authentic news as fake news. This is a problem, that undermines the credibility of the news media. And it makes a sort of post-truth situation. Another issue is that is actually really fake news. There are groups who are trying to produce false narratives about what it happened. For example, when Russian troops through to Ukraine, they say that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine – that is actually fake news. So you have two problems. Your government trying to denigrate, undermine the legitimacy of real reporters. And you have actually fake news that has been proprietary by different entities. It’s a complicated thing – try to find a balance.

Popova: In this case, we have a question for you. Which countries or which governments of the world are working against fake news in the right way? Who is keeping freedom of speech and in the same times beating fake news? Who they are?

Abramowitz: I would honestly say that is a problem for many different countries. It’s a challenge for many different countries. I would not say that one country has a monopoly. It’s a new phenomenon. Only 5 or 6 years ago, we thought that internet would be a liberating technology, right, that people at Times Square or Maidan came to the protest government base of information that they got it from the social media. Today social media can be a platform for false news. So, I think the world is changing rapidly and I don’t think that one country has a monopoly on this. But the answer is very difficult since many journalists remain in prisons. The answer is media literacy, teaching students and teaching others how to recognize propaganda, how to recognize false news. It’s for journalists to do their job without fear. It’s for governments to protect freedom of speech and not a crackdown on fake news. So, many different countries are doing some interesting experiments. In my country civil society is working very closely with tech companies, to try to help identify real fake news. There is even such a specialization in journalism as checkers, that is, people who check the facts and we need to develop this direction. In our reports, we have distinguished the country – this is Estonia, another country that has a lot of pressure from the Russian government. But in Estonia they respect freedom of a press, they respect freedom of expression, and they take making affords to help students to recognize what is false news and what is real, but they are not restricting the right of speech.

Popova: You mean that Estonia is fighting well against false news and is keep freedom of speech. At the same time, your country works well with large platforms. What is going on in Western Europe? We know that there was a project to counter fake news in France. But it did not pass through the Senate. So, what do you think is going on in Western Europe about fake news?

Abramowitz: I think that is a problem for the whole world including my country. I am not tried to say any one country has all the answers, but think what is important, that countries must respect freedom of a press and independent media. The answer is not to hold back any legislative institutes and initiatives. We teach students in Western Europe and America. You need to teach people right from the start so that they understand this situation properly. Distinguish facts from propaganda and it is necessary to start with the students, from the young age – this is very important. And we have a great strong tradition of freedom of the press. We think that protecting the rights of journalists is very important, so that they have the right to cover the news, talk about what they think – this is the main issue and the main challenge.

Popova: Is it known to you that the tendency of problems with freedom of speech in Ukraine and first attacks initially by the bullying (Myrotvorets), then the attacks/killing of journalists (Sheremet) began in 2016? What steps should the government take to keep freedom of speech?

Abramowitz: Our organization is doing a lot of things for the media. One of the important things is that we publish our report every year in every country in the world, including in the United States of America. But we look at the state of Freedom; we look on the issue of freedom of a press, freedom of expression, freedom of association and rule of law. In general, we respect, that you have mentioned in Ukraine, we have been critical what has happened in Ukraine in the last couple of years. We talked about this after the revolution in 2014, and we saw that the journalists were heroes during those events, but then the situation changed somewhat in terms of freedom of the press. You have seen the last couple of years, some domination of press freedom. You have mentioned the killing of a journalist two years ago. And of course – this is disturbing us, not only in Ukraine, but also in the whole world. This is a global phenomenon of attack on journalists. Today there are more than a hundred journalists in prisons, and this is a big problem. Governments are all trying to keep their policies, their strength, and for our part, we are trying to keep criticism. And we talk about this in our reports, in particular in Ukraine as well.

Popova: On one round table where I was also participating, your representative in Ukraine – Matthew Shelf, mentioned that there are some themes in media, which journalists in Ukraine try not to cover, not to touch. Which are these themes, if you know the answer?

Abramowitz: I think one of the big issues in Ukraine, as in other countries, is official corruption and unofficial corruption that can be a dangerous topic for journalists. Many journalists have been killed because of this, publishing various stories about corruption. And this challenge is an important issue. There are many bold journalists who could touch upon some subtle topics that are dangerous.

Popova: I absolutely agree with you, it is true that most journalists, who are covering the question of corruption or some investigation against a big building company or big companies who are breaking rules about ecology or corruption, politicians or government workers are under effects. Ukraine has a high level of physical aggression against journalists (80 cases last year, 57 for January-August 2018) and almost zero result in investigations. What should we do with it?

Abramowitz: The information, that you have just put on the screen, about violence against journalists in Ukraine, we are greatly concerned about this, because it is a big problem. Journalists criticize and this is a part of their work. They must feel safe because of that, but a physical threat is unacceptable. Many different countries where journalists are under physical threat just doing their job, and that is wrong. If the journalist was attacked, if he was killed – the authorities should do everything to investigate these cases, otherwise, nobody will believe them. And the main thing is to prevent possible similar attacks on journalists in the future. The government, the business community, society must respect the work of the journalist. They may not agree with what the journalist says, but they need to respect their work and their opinions.

Popova: I agree with you. By the way, we will try to contact the representative and speaker of the Interior Ministry of Ukraine. Our group, which is monitoring the Index of Physical Attacks on Journalists, has asked him for a report of investigations of these attacks. If he picks up the phone, we will hear him and he will give us answers to the questions. Hello, Artem! We are currently in the studio with Michael Abramowitz and we talk about crimes against the journalists and about how they are investigated. Please tell me what is happening now in investigations, what about the response to the request sent to you by our group, which is monitoring the Index of Physical Attacks on Journalists, when we can get the full answer?

Artem Shevchenko: When these responses will be provided directly by the investigative organization, which is the National Police of Ukraine, the National Police Investigative Authorities. Because they accumulate and lead every process and they provide us with all the information, and then we provide you with it.

Popova: Tell me please, now I ask from myself, and then I will ask a question from my guest. Why, even in those five responses from the five regional organizations that came to us from the investigative authorities, the answers were incomplete and they didn’t consider all the cases? For example, you did not respond about the case of Tkach from Radio Liberty in Kyiv region; he was not even mentioned there, although this is a fairly well-known case.

Artem Shevchenko: What do you mean by the Tkach case?

Popova: I’m talking about two cases. What happened at the wedding of the son of General Prosecutor, and what happened during the arrival of Medvedchuk at Zhulyany airport?

Artem Shevchenko: As for the arrival of Medvedchuk at the Zhulyany airport, the police of the Kyiv region investigated precisely the criminal implementation of the interference. One suspect was established there and he was served a notice of suspicion. As for the wedding, I’m not ready to say exactly, but I presume the investigation was held by the prosecutor’s office, as potential suspects, if they were there, were likely recognized by the Department of the State Guard of Ukraine as public servants or officers. That is, all proceedings with regard to civil servants or servicemen are carried out by the relevant investigative body within the prosecutor’s office. I can accurately say that the Chief of Police in Kyiv reported to the public that there was one suspect accused of interrupting the journalists’ work near the airport. And I suppose the case is even passed to the court, but I can’t say for sure. If you give me more time, I’m ready to provide you with more complete information.

Popova: I sent you responses yesterday from the investigative authorities; you can see that there are no responses regarding the Tkach case.

Artem Shevchenko: Tatiana, I don’t form the answers, the answers are formed by the investigative units.

Popova: Yes, I understand, but it is your organization.

Artem Shevchenko: I work at the Ministry of the Interior, and the investigators work in the National Police and are somewhat restricted by law, in particular by the Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows the dissemination of information only to the extent that this will allow a particular investigator in whose proceedings there is one or another case. Therefore, in this case, I am no more than a communicator telling you what the relevant investigators have achieved and add, if I know something from myself, such as with the episode of Tkach – the suspect was established and the case seems to be in the court, but I’ll be able to say for sure later.

Popova: Thank you. Now, a question from my guest.

Abramowitz: The general question is: What steps does the government take to investigate these cases?

Artem Shevchenko: These steps in accordance with the normal criminal proceedings. The dynamics of these investigations is obviously different since the crimes are different. I emphasize – I represent the Ministry of the Interior, I am a public servant, I do not investigate directly and I am not a policeman, and I pass it to you as a communicator. And if the police investigative authorities establish some results that can be shared with the community, they will do it, and we will respectively hand over and make it public in the fastest way.

Popova: From my side, I ask you to make your reports and answers to questions about attacks on journalists more complete and more regular.

Artem Shevchenko: No matter how much I want to, I can’t share the information you want to get because there are some rules and restrictions. The whole proceeding is fully disclosed only in court, if there is a public hearing of criminal proceedings and the case falls into court. There the investigative authorities accusing the person and the defense that protects him reveal the cards. I hope you fully understand what I mean.

Popova: Artem, thank you.

Popova: So, maybe the last question, because fake news is a very important topic in Ukraine, especially before 2 elections which we will have next year, presidential and parliamentary. And Russia is trying to influence quite strongly our information field. What would be your recommendations about how to deal with fake news before elections?

Abramowitz: I want to say one thing what I have forgotten to mention -I am a former journalist. I worked many years in “Washington Post”, I am covered different elections and I am very familiar with the different challenges. Here in Ukraine, one of the challenges, of course, is the influence of Russia, which tries to undermine the democratic value and this is a big problem. Russian propaganda is really a problem that the country must overcome. Some nuances also existed in our country in the United States in 2016 before the presidential elections, and then it also distributed fake information that had some influence on voters. The first thing I would like to say is that you have to admit that this is a really big problem – fake news, especially before Russia’s election – it is necessary to realize and understand that it is necessary to make important counter-steps and counter-measures to take in order to fight this propaganda. And people should expect that there will be new problems and not all the news they receive through television or the Internet – not all news are true. Here is an important position, the question is the education of people, it is necessary to improve, to carry out a certain self-education, in order to be able to distinguish all these news, where the fake, and where is the truth. In countries like Ukraine, where democracy is not yet properly, it’s really a problem, but people should realize that they primarily want to be free, want to see around the openness of the press. This is a normal debate in a democratic country and we must follow these values, then propaganda can be overcome and censored too.

Popova: Democracy could be kept only with the methods which are in line with democracy.

Abramowitz: We see it at the Freedom House. You know many countries like Russia, like Turkey. To take two examples that really can to shut down any public debate by intimidating journalists, by throwing them in jail and in some cases by killing them. This is not the road the countries like Ukraine want to go. It is a great country, because of its freedom that is allowed by people.

Popova: The next year will be, may be one of the toughest for Ukrainian journalists, because from one point of view there will be elections and there will be some pressure from corrupt officials or businessmen who take part in corruption deals and it is difficult to work on some topics as your organization notes in Ukraine. And from another point of view, they should not go in the Russian agenda, who mainly say narratives like “Ukraine is failing state, totally corrupt”. How for them to stay on this difficult crossroad and to be prepared for this tough work?

Abramowitz: My advice to journalists is the same as in the United States and in Western Europe. The main advice is just to do your job, to look all the sides of the situation, investigate the facts and try to tell the story as accurately as possible. You know journalists are not perfect, no one is perfect. Journalists might make a mistake, but the main rule is that we must make a true story and then everything will be fine. Corruption, whether it’s a crime or a bad job of the government, is information that people and society need to know. Every country in the world makes mistakes. But it is necessary to prove the information and therefore, in principle, this is the role of the journalists. They are the guardians of the situation in the country, such as watchdogs. It is necessary to look objectively at the facts and report them as accurately as you can, and then there should not be any problems for Ukrainian journalists, as well as for any journalists in general.

Popova: Ok, great. Thank you for the interview.

Abramowitz: Thank you for having me. And good luck with your important work.

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