RFE/RL’s Vaclav Havel and Jiri Dienstbier Journalism Fellows spoke to an overflow crowd at the U.S. embassy's American Center in Prague March 22 on the topic of disinformation in their societies, its impact on professional journalism, and the acute need for fact-based, reliable reporting in their countries.
The fellows come from the European Union’s Eastern Partnership countries, Russia, and the western Balkans, where challenges to media independence make it difficult for alternative voices to be heard.
Russian journalist Natalia Kondrashova said independent media in the region face a struggle for survival, while poor quality reporting flourishes. Glib Zhavoronkov from Ukraine said oligarchs and other powerful interests own most of the country's major media, which they use to promote their individual political and financial agendas.
The fellows also acknowledged that media independence and professionalism are reflections of larger political and economic problems, and closely tied to the level corruption and the strength of the rule of law in their countries.
Nektar Zogjani from Kosovo emphasized the growth of online media as an important news source, but one that carries a risk of “copy-paste” journalism, which diminishes the credibility of the media in general.
In light of recent scrutiny over Facebook’s role in disseminating disinformation in connection with elections in the U.S. and Europe, panelists also debated whether social media’s influence in their countries was a “net positive” or “net negative.” The fellows were unanimous in concluding that social networks were a net gain, but acknowledged that users need to be able to judge the content they consume critically.
The panel advocated for more training for journalists and exposure to professional media, and resources for their countries to promote media literacy and critical thinking, among young audiences in particular.
The discussion was moderated by Petr Horky, a journalist with the Czech weekly magazine Respekt.
RFE/RL's fellowship programs, which are conducted jointly with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, provide mentoring and support for outstanding journalists dedicated to promoting human rights and democracy.