Following an initiative by the Swedish BSPC delegation, the Standing Committee of the BSPC held a seminar on the topic Democracy in a Changing Media Landscape: Digitisation, Combating Disinformation and Fake News as well as Protecting Free Media and Freedom of Speech. The topic is one of the main priorities of the Swedish BSPC Presidency.The meeting included more than 60 participants from the BSPC and experts, among them the former President of Latvia, Prof Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga. Participants from the Åland Islands, the Baltic Assembly, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, the German Bundestag, Hamburg, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Nordic Council, Norway, Poland, the Russian Federation, and Sweden participated.
BSPC President Pyry Niemi opened the seminar by acknowledging the importance of protecting and safeguarding the trust in the democratic system. Mr Niemi mentioned that the pandemic in many ways had led to a democratic backslide and that there were several challenges for democracy today.
In detail, he expressed his hope that the year 2021 would be brighter, safer, and healthier for the whole world than the last one and that it would soon be possible to meet in person again. He looked forward to another year of constructive and rewarding parliamentary cooperation and dialogue about mutual concerns regarding Baltic Sea issues.
Sustainable democracy was the cornerstone of the Swedish BSPC Presidency, he underlined. The digital age of the present day had provided several reasons to address the challenges and the possibilities that lay ahead.
During the last year, several events had made it clear that it was necessary to protect and safeguard the trust in the democratic system. Even where none had ever expected to see something of this sort, Mr Niemi said, images of the vulnerability of democratic structures had shaken everyone to the core. That had once again shown in no uncertain terms that it was necessary to work and fight every day for our democracies.
One example was the pandemic that, in many respects, had led to a backslide for democracy. Several countries had imposed restrictions on freedom of expression, and in many places, it was difficult for journalists to do their job. The US election and the two months after were another example of disinformation threatening people’s confidence in the democratic system.
BSPC President Niemi stressed that the digital age had made information and communication technology central to people’s lives today. On the one hand, this meant new possibilities for political engagement and access to information. On the other hand, the increase in disinformation and fake news had the potential to create polarisation, extremism, and ultimately undermine democracy.
He closed by highlighting that a strong democracy demanded engagement and continuous work. A strong democracy required vital and constructive discussions.
Panel I: Digital Democracy: Challenges and Opportunities
The first panel was moderated by BSPC Vice President Johannes Schraps. He also pointed to the fact that the democracy was under threat, mentioning the recent events in the US as an example, which had shown how vulnerable democratic structures were. He further reminded the seminar participants that the BSPC Standing Committee had already discussed related issues with one of the present experts in 2017 and had included calls for action to the governments of the Baltic Sea Region in that year, based on the research findings and discussions at that time.
The first invited speaker was Dr Jan-Hinrik Schmidt, Senior Researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Media Research/Hans-Bredow-Institut in Hamburg. Dr Schmidt focused his presentation on the positive aspects of digitisation for democracy and mentioned three arguments in this respect. His first argument was that the internet was increasing access to information on topics of collective interest, making it easier for people to stay informed. There was also a diversity of information on the internet. The second reason mentioned by Mr Schmidt was that the internet was supporting people in formulating their opinions and views. People could, for instance, come together and exchange opinions without actually meeting in person. As examples, he pointed to the comment section on a news page or on social media. The speaker’s third and last reason concerned the internet decreasing the transition costs for coordinated action toward common goals, such as Fridays for Future.
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The second speaker of the seminar was Mr Carl Heath, former special counsel for the Committee “National initiative for media information literacy and democratic dialogue”, appointed by the Swedish government. One of the main conclusions from the committee’s work, according to Mr Heath, was that the democratic dialogue was being challenged by disinformation, online hate, and propaganda. The speaker also pointed out that online hate on social media had become more prevalent. One out of three politicians in Sweden had been subjected to harassment, threats, and violence or had avoided speaking out or getting involved in a particular issue. Four out of ten journalists had at some point refrained from certain topics due to the risk of threats. Mr Heath stated that there was a need for a number of actions to be taken in the field, for example strengthening media and information literacy among young adults and adults, prioritising initiatives against online hate speech, and conducting an analysis on how democracy was affected by global social media platform companies.
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The third and last speaker of the first panel was Mr Jack Werner, journalist and co-founder of Källkritikbyrån (a fact-finding agency). Mr Werner gave a presentation focused on the US election and the dangers of conspiracy theories. One example was QAnon, where the general idea was that Mr Trump was planning to imprison all the powerful, supposedly evil people in the US. Mr Werner also pointed to the fact that people, in a weak democracy, often wanted a strong, simple story with a good guy and a villain. Fact-finding journalism was therefore needed to check facts and present findings in an easily-digested way.
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During the following panel discussion, Mr Christian Juhl, MP, Denmark, made a remark regarding there not being one true idea. As parliamentarians, they all had different ideas about what was their ideal society. In the discussion, Mr Kolbeinn Óttarsson Proppé and Mr Johannes Schraps also participated and gave their views on the issue.
Panel II: The Role of Free Media in Combating Fake News, Protection of Media Freedom and the Freedom of Speech
The second part of the seminar was moderated by Ms Pernilla Stålhammar, MP, Sweden. Ms Stålhammar introduced the panel by drawing attention to the infodemic taking place in connection with the corona pandemic.
The first speaker of the second panel was Professor Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, former president of Latvia and former Chair of an EU high-level group on media freedom and media pluralism. Ms Vīķe-Freiberga stated that information had played a crucial role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Baltic States. Freedom of information was necessary for a democracy: The more totalitarian a government, the less freedom of speech there was. Professor Vīķe-Freiberga also stated that citizens never could be sure of obtaining a neutral truth, since that depended in many ways on how a story was framed or told. The professor gave an example to show that this was not a new phenomenon as Benjamin Franklin had written a column in his own magazine under the name of an old lady from the countryside. Professor Vīķe-Freiberga argued that even though digitisation had changed the media situation dramatically, the underlying principles remained the same. People needed knowledge and insights to be able to separate what was true from what was false.
Mr Erik Halkjaer, journalist and President of the Board of the Swedish section of Reporters without Borders, was the second speaker in this panel. He started his presentation by saying that press freedom was not only a topic in relation to dictatorships. Challenges to press freedom also manifested in democracies. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Reporters without Borders had identified five crises threatening independent journalism and free media: a geopolitical crisis, a democratic crisis, an economic crisis, a technological crisis, and a trust crisis. All of these had worsened during the pandemic. The next press freedom index which would be published in April would show a darker map than in the past year. Mr Halkjaer pointed to Europe as the region in the world where press freedom was currently shrinking the most. He mentioned some countries in terms of their current development and their ranking in the press freedom index. He underlined the necessity to discuss misinformation, disinformation, censorship, and propaganda. Mr Halkjaer urged the politicians to stand up for media freedom, independent journalism, and transparent digital platforms.
The last speaker was Ms Anna-Karin Johansson, Secretary-General at the Swedish National Commission for UNESCO. Ms Johansson highlighted the importance of information exchange and education. Among other things, UNESCO offered training programmes for media professionals in developing countries. In her presentation, she also pointed to the positive response from the civil society and international organisations such as the Council of Europe, which was and had been pushing this issue onto the agenda. Ms Johansson continued by saying that education was vital in combating disinformation. Citizens needed to be well-informed to be able to participate in decision-making. She also raised the question of finding financial models to secure independent media.
In the following panel discussion, Ms Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby, MP, Sweden, considered what disinformation was and what it was not and who could make that decision. Mr Johannes Schraps agreed with Professor Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga on the issue of a socially agreed-upon reality and the importance of media pluralism. Mr Kolbeinn Óttarsson Proppé also made a remark regarding state funding for media and the difficulties of ensuring media independence at the same time.
The Vice Chair of the Swedish Delegation, Ms Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby, closed the seminar by thanking all of the speakers and the participants. She concluded that several interesting perspectives had been raised which the BSPC could incorporate into their upcoming work at the annual conference and in regard to the next resolution.