International Fact-Checking Day marked with regional Conference – Defending Democracy in the Balkans: Safeguarding Information Integrity in the Digital Era

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On April 2, International Fact-Checking Day, the Metamorphosis Foundation and the Anti-Disinformation for the Balkans organized a Regional Conference on the topic: “Defending Democracy in the Balkans: Safeguarding Information Integrity in the Digital Era”.

The conference was attended by experts from the region and beyond who are engaged in checking facts and countering disinformation.

At the first panel discussion entitled Challenges to countering Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference (FIMI) in the Balkans the focus was on foreign harmful influences. Specifically, spreading disinformation at the regional level and identifying the most common disinformation flows and narratives.

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Representatives from Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo shared their experiences with the spread of disinformation in their countries, confirming the same conclusions about the way it spreads and the narratives used throughout the region.

Faik Ispahiu from Internews Kosovo warned that disinformation is not only a media problem, but also a historical one. In Albania, a large amount of disinformation comes from outside but also from inside, shared Klodiana Kapo from the Albanian fact-checking organization Faktoje.

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Denis Djidić from BIRN, Bosnia and Herzegovina, pointed out that the purpose of disinformation is to create strong Euro-skepticism, and Russia is not the only one to blame for this. And Stylianos Pournis from Ellinika Hoaxes, Greece gave examples of how misinformation has entered the Greek parliament.

The second panel discussion on “Democracy at Risk: Elections in the Age of Disinformation” focused on informational disruption in electoral processes. Experiences with examples of spreading disinformation during elections in other countries, especially during the election campaign were shared here.

This discussion started with an impressive short presentation by Jakub Kalensky from the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE), Finland.

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“The good news is that fortunately, we are finally getting better at detecting the problem. But the bad news is that we are not doing enough to stop the Kremlin and we are seeing it on the ground. Also in the information domain, with the current trajectory, Russia is winning. We see that there are disinformation campaigns, and those who support Russian campaigns are winning elections. “We don’t have a long-term strategy, we don’t have a clear strategy on how to win the fight from an information point of view,” Kalensky said.

In this panel Jan Cingel from “Strategic Analyses”, Slovakia warned about the expected increased disinformation narratives before the elections. He gave the example of the disinformation campaign using an AI-generated audio recording during the election campaign in Slovakia, which influenced the election process.

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Vladimir Erceg from CRTA Serbia talked about the irregularities in Serbia during the elections, which were monitored and noted by their representatives, and Marko Vukajlovic from the Center for Democratic Transition (CDT) in Montenegro talked about the ubiquity of disinformation in his country.

Svetlana Siljanovska, adviser in the Macedonian Government emphasized that the government, civil society organizations and the media need to jointly oppose the organized structure that is on the other side.

Ismar Milak from the civil association “Why not?” from Bosnia and Herzegovina said that their situation with disinformation campaigns is terrible. “We have only 200 registered portals. They open before elections and close after elections. Amendments are being made to the Law to regulate this,” said Milak.

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The conference was opened by the Ambassador of the EU in North Macedonia, David Geer, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Dirk Jan Kopp, the Secretary of State in the Ministry of Defense, Vladimir Anchev, and the executive director of Metamorphosis, Bardhyl Jashari.

As Ambassador Geer pointed out, fact-checking is vital in the efforts to distinguish lies from truth, information from misinformation, genuine differences of opinion from twisting the facts or what are described as “alternative facts.”

According to the euroambassador, fact-checkers are also important in uncovering the strategies and techniques used to promote disinformation. And in that way, they help us become more resistant to manipulation.

Dutch ambassador Dirk Jan Kopp, on the other hand, indicated that the project “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism” was supported by the Netherlands in November 2021, just a few months before the Russian Federation began its brutal war of aggression in Ukraine.

“At that time, we did not expect a plethora of disinformation to spread in this region. However, we were pleased to support an innovative data-driven initiative that brought together journalists, analysts and activists with one common goal: providing truthful and reliable sources of information. Two years later we see that we made the right choice,” said Jan Kopp.

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The guests present were representatives of domestic institutions, civil society, international organizations, representatives of the diplomatic corps, ambassadors, journalists.

The main conclusions were aimed at the fact that more attention is needed to the information flow and greater cooperation at the regional level to protect against disinformation, considering that in the new era they spread more and more easily and are more and more difficult to identify.

The Executive Director of Metamorphosis, Bardhyl Jashari, said that this event is a significant turning point considering that it is organized on the International Fact-Checking Day.

“This event confirms our commitment to protecting truth and integrity, highlights the indispensable role of fact checkers. We strongly believe in joint commitments, in transparent processes and in the network of sharing, because it is the basis of our work at Metamorphosis, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This network in the Balkans is like normal progress in the region from all the conferences that took place. We want this network to create new partnerships because only by working together we can make a significant impact,” said Jashari.

For more than 13 years, the Metamorphosis Foundation has been working to uncover the misinformation that is spreading throughout the country and the region through digital media, collaborating with 15 partner organizations from all over the Balkans.

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The Anti-Disinformation for the Balkans was founded in 2020, and in addition to Metamorphosis and Innovative Media from North Macedonia, the network includes Internews Kosova from Kosovo, CRTA from Serbia, Ellinika Hoaxes from Greece, BlueLink from Bulgaria, then Peace Journalism Lab, Digital Communications Network Southeast Europe Hub and Journalists about Journalism from Greece. Its members adhere to the founding Declaration which affirms freedom of expression in its various forms.