How controversial is the move to return Radio Free Europe to member states of the European Union? Former President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Thomas Kent sheds light in an interview on the challenge to protect the free press, ensure transparency and information sovereignty.
Wojciech Przybylski: How do you define information sovereignty?
Thomas Kent: From my standpoint, information sovereignty is the right of the individual to have access to free information and to make one’s own choice about what information or wants to get. So it is an individual right and not a government right. I think the obligation of government is to guarantee the information sovereignty of individuals.
Some governments find that frightening. And that is too bad. But governments that limit information historically do not last very long. Unfortunately, it is part of the burden of being a government that, if you want to survive, you have to allow a certain amount of information.
It is becoming clearer and clearer these days which governments are frightened of information. Governments are acquiring all sorts of new tools to fight the existence of free information. But the tools are not very good in most places. And when I was running RFE/RL, I always thought that I would much rather be the guy trying to get information into a country than being the guy who had to keep it out.
How do you see the situation concerning the return of Radio Free Europe to Hungary? Isn’t it a controversial decision to move back into a country that is a NATO ally and a member of the European Union. How is it being assessed?
Congress has not given the go-ahead yet, but they are in the process. When I was Director of RFE/RL I looked at our organisation as being one about freedom of speech and freedom of information. And so the fact that a country is part of NATO or not is a political distinction that was not on the top of our agenda.
You are aware that the organisation has reopened its service in Romania and Bulgaria, and I think it has been positive for our audiences in those countries. RFE/RL also operates in Montenegro, which is a NATO country now.
So the goal is simply to provide and try to advance a free press in countries where the free press does not exist or is still in an embryonic stage. I do not think it is a political question for us then.
How do you measure success on these terms, the advancement of a free press?
With the media, it is easier to measure success if you do an investigative report on something and, as a result, something changes. This could be a new government policy or a notable decrease in corruption, both things you can measure.
It is harder to say whether people have become more democratic or open-minded. That is always hard, both for NGOs and governments.
The media works one story at a time. And with regard to each individual story, we can see if it was effective or not. So it is somewhat easier.
Do you think it builds society’s trust towards the medium? Or rather, how do you build such trust?
You build trust when people can see that you are telling the truth. And that is why our organisation is so effective because we cover local news and only focus on local stories.
We are not telling people in Romania about Syria. We are talking about Romania. And they know their own reality and they can very easily see if we’re telling the truth or not. It rings true or does not ring true. I think our credibility comes from that.
Certainly, during the Cold War, when RFE/RL was broadcasting into Soviet-controlled countries, it was more difficult because we had a lot of difficulties knowing exactly what was going on. There were delays and it was complicated. But now when we can be there in person, we can demonstrate really accurate reporting that reflects the reality of local conditions and how to get back to information sovereignty.
Your starting point was to say that information sovereignty is an individual right, but there is something of a collective question here as well. The European Union has just been debating laws against disinformation and election meddling. Would you use the term in the context of democracies: do they need special measures to provide information sovereignty?
I think what is most important is information transparency. It should be clear to the reader where the information comes from. Who is behind it? And that goes for domestic as well as foreign information.
If you believe in labelling foreign information, then you have to be willing to say that this domestic website is funded by this or that group, including foreign ones, even though the website looks like a domestic one.
I have no problem with information transparency, but there is a difference between transparency and trying to keep content out or trying to suppress content in its entirety.
What effective tools can we apply to ensure media transparency and information sovereignty? Because it seems that governments in Poland and Hungary, in particular, are providing opportunities to undermine the very essence of media plurality.
I doubt that information control is the job of governments. Governments are supposed to reflect the will of the people and the will of the people depends on them having accurate information.
So if the government creates information that people then use to evaluate the government, obviously, there is something wrong with this circle.
There has to be a source of independent information and that can be challenging in economic terms, for example when the government tries to control through advertising what publications survive. It can also be difficult in legal terms when the government tries to give licenses to journalists or creates some kind of “self-governing body” that in reality is controlled by the government. All of this distorts the natural ability of people to create and share information.
Fortunately, sharing information is much less expensive now than it used to be because you do not need the mechanics of a printing press. Everybody can create information on social networks, blogs and websites.
The best rule for the government in these situations is to get out of the way. We do not really need the government to create the conditions for the media or to control the operations of the media.
People do not need help. They can create their own media and it will survive, I hope, directly proportional to the degree of value that people find in it.
Do you see a change of journalistic standards because of digital media?
I do not think standards should change, just because new platforms appear. In my view, the only standards are about telling the truth. In addition, they should be about transparency and humanity. I doubt the nature of the platform really changes that.
There is a temptation when news moves so fast these days, a temptation to not do so much verifying what is true and what is not. But you have to fight that temptation.
One thing that technology does let us do is. There is much more substantive investigative reporting because there are so many computer-assisted tools, including artificial intelligence and machine learning that journalists can use.
Digital media does not need to change the fundamentals of journalism. It can make it much more efficient.
How do you look at the different types of journalism? There are big institutions and organisations, public and private, but also blogging and social media journalism. According to some surveys, people are susceptible to alternative, non-institutional media. Should there be a distinction when it comes to media institutions? Does it make a difference when it concerns the defence of information sovereignty?
Well, I believe a journalist is any person who commits an act of journalism. That could be for a big newspaper or it could be on a blog or anything else. I would like to see respect for journalism and protection of journalism extended to everybody who commits. Who carries out ethical journalism by the definitions that I’ve provided? Transparency, honesty and balance.
I am less concerned about the definition of what kind of organisation is engaged in journalism. When you define the action, it simplifies things tremendously.
Governments are institutions and tend to think in terms of institutions. So the first thing they want to do is define journalistic institutions. It is the way they think.
To me, it is actually different. We have now software as a service. Similarly, there is journalism as a service. And it is important to define something by what it does rather than who it is.
What to do with targeted disinformation campaigns coming from abroad, especially in the context of small countries that may not have the capacity to deal with this. What can be done in these situations?
The first thing is to insist on transparency for anything that is broadcast or published, where it is coming from. For instance, if there is a website that is operated by one local citizen and 17 people from the outside, this disproportion should be clear. Again, you are not suppressing the news outlet but here you’re explaining what it is.
Perhaps this is not an ideal situation. But I always consider what would be the alternative. The alternative would be to ban things because the government thinks they are wrong. And then you are putting too much power on the government.
So the problem is that there are no perfect solutions. At the same time, there is no reason why civil society cannot be effective and aggressive in countering false information.
It is not only a question of issuing official reports, but it is a question of being active on social networks and responding to false information, and not being afraid to argue strongly for what you believe. I mean, in many countries that are there are activists (“Elves” in Lithuania) who are very busy on social networks and comment on websites and so forth.
Do you see a risk in the fact that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have taken on the role of arbitrator and decide what is truthful information and journalism? They have the capacity to restrict or make publication very difficult. Perhaps there is a bigger risk emanating from them than from the government?
With regard to Facebook and Google, sometimes I think they have created a monster they cannot control themselves. But they are at their best when they argue for transparency and when they insist that things are labelled.
Social media are at their best when they fight inauthentic content, which is to say the use of bots and thousands of fake accounts. However, I think it is hard for Facebook to decide, for example, which of the 200 political factions in Azerbaijan are the legitimate ones. That is asking a lot and I am sure there is no perfect answer no matter how many experts on Azerbaijan you hire.
Hence, I think their focus has to be on transparency more than anything else.
Thomas Kent is former President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). He worked for over forty years with Associated Press, among others as Moscow Bureau Chief, International Editor and Deputy Managing Editor of the organisation. He currently serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where he teaches about the geopolitics of information, propaganda, journalistic ethics and press freedom.