In the second half of the BSPC Annual Conference’s first day, the focus was first placed on democracy and the invaluable role of free and independent media, especially in light of disinformation and propaganda campaigns. The second focus considered climate change and biodiversity, with representatives from the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum as well as experts in a panel discussion.
Second Session on
Democracy and freedom of expression – how do we secure free media in the Baltic Sea Region?
The chair of the session, Ms Bryndís Haraldsdóttir of Iceland, highlighted that free media and their working conditions played an all the more crucial role in these challenging times for our democracies. After the 30th BSPC had mostly dealt with the issue of disinformation and fake news, this year would focus on the value of free media and good working conditions for journalists, particularly in the light of the new media law in Russia.
Mr Michael Jarlner, journalist and international editor at Politiken, was primarily concerned with the task of understanding the role of the press. He cited Thomas Jefferson’s preference for newspapers over governments and Walter Cronkite’s declaration that freedom of the press was democracy. The Baltic Sea region numbered 90 million people, with so many resources and resourceful people, yet it was vulnerable to the presence of autocracies. Challenges to press freedom were posed by Belarus not allowing in reporters as well as Russia’s new media law which made journalists not feel safe. Mr Jarlner regretted the short attention span in both media and politics, especially with regard to the war in Ukraine. Yet the war affected the rest of Europe as well, and the media had to stay aware this was a long-term war. Mr Jarlner’s newspaper Politiken was seeking to counter this trend by keeping the topic alive and by identifying progressive journalists in Russia and Belarus to support them. Moreover, they had established a Russian-language version of their newspaper.
Mr Jarlner insisted that what applied in peacetime still was true in wartime. In this regard, he pointed out that Reporter Without Borders had criticised Poland for increased state control of media while Denmark and Finland were prosecuting journalists over covering intelligence matters. This had to be taken seriously. Russia was a reminder what European nations did not want to be, he stated.
Mr Kacper Płażyński from Poland said he considered free science to be as important as free media when its subjects countered popular opinion. Mr Michael Jarlner responded by saying he hoped for a diversity of views. Yet there was the difficult problem of where to draw a line. For Mr Jarlner that was when dubious science – such as the flat earth belief – was granted the same standing as established science.
Mr Ola Elvestuen from Norway wondered what share of the Russian population could actually access outside sources, such as those Mr Jarlner had outlined, but also the role of the media in the spread of Russian and Chinese fake news. Regarding access, Mr Michael Jarlner explained that they were using channels such as Telegram, noting that they had to keep finding new ways of circumventing Russian censorship. As misinformation would be tackled later, he pointed out his biggest problem, namely that there was no good grasp of what was really going on in Russia. Opinions had to be separated from misinformation. Furthermore, checks had to be made on both sides, making sure that western media did not see any faults on their side.
Ms Valentyna Shapovalova, PhD fellow at Copenhagen University, spoke about Russian disinformation and propaganda. To illustrate the current domestic climate in Russia, she mentioned that the world had been taken by the horrific images in Bucha. The Russian state-aligned media on this day, 4 April 2022, a very different coverage of the events had been presented: Instead of portraying the story as a tragedy and example of the Russian war crimes, it had been shown as a staged event created by the Ukrainian troops as a provocation to Russia. The presenter on a popular talk show claimed that the corpses were actually actors. The same opposition to reality was spread across other Russian state-aligned media. Fake fact-checking was one of the main strategies to turn reality on its head and fit the Kremlin narratives. Information and media control was one of the main pillars of authoritarian rule in general. Disinformation and propaganda had been used by Russia both domestically and abroad as tools of information warfare for years. Other examples cited by Ms Shapovalova were the war in Georgia in 2008 as well as the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
She outlined the disinformation and propaganda system, containing traditional and social media in Russia and abroad, controlled in a nuanced and multi-layered way from the Kremlin. Since 24 February, the magnitude of lies and manipulated facts had increased, along with Orwellian prohibitions on words like “war”. Before that day, Russia had already been in 150th place in the press freedom index, but there had been a few independent outlets with wide reach to challenge the state narrative. The surviving ones had to move abroad and were not easy to access over VPN channels. Their present-day reach into Russian society was unknown, Ms Shapovalova underlined. She had identified a number of narratives in the disinformation sphere, such as the “special military operation” not targeting civilians in Ukraine; rather, NATO was indicted as waging war there with Ukraine a puppet state; the “operation” was supposedly conducted to counter threatened NATO expansion; Ukraine was claimed to be a Nazi state implementing genocide in the Donbas region; Russia was said to have the right to annex previously Russian territory; sanctions were presented as hitting the West harder than Russia. Russian further media ridiculed western leaders, institutions and values and also claiming western media were “Russophobic” and spreading disinformation about Russia.
Ms Shapovalova mentioned three of the central goals of the disinformation: Firstly, it was to undermine the existence of factually verifiable information; secondly, to undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions in the West; and lastly, to promote the Kremlin’s political and geopolitical as well as military interests. She considered it crucial that the leaders in the Baltic Sea region and the West in general understood that this was deeply rooted and widespread. Russian disinformation and propaganda had to be taken very seriously.
Ms Anne Shepley of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern wondered about the development of the disinformation system in the future. Ms Valentyna Shapovalova was pessimistic, noting that it was increasingly difficult to get information through to Russia, with some VPN tools blocked by the state. She agreed that Western media should continue trying to funnel articles translated into Russian into the country, but they were only targeting the opposition. Getting through to the large core of people watching Russian television was very difficult. Ms Shapovalova stressed the danger of Russian propaganda which, when watched at length, could even affect her as a Ukrainian. It was her belief that the disinformation system would keep amplifying, along with an even more severe block on outside information.
Mr Krzysztof Walczak of Hamburg asked about the speaker using disinformation and propaganda synonymously and the benefits of banning rather than countering narratives. Ms Valentyna Shapovalova explained that she had simplified her presentation; disinformation was defined as intentionally malicious and/or factually unverifiable, false information whereas misinformation was unintentionally false, malicious or misleading information. Propaganda did not have to be false, but it was information framed or manipulated to influence the public, was often polemic and played on feelings. As for banning, she considered this difficult and could not provide a clear answer.
Mr Gennaro Migliore (PAM) pointed out the difficulty of getting social media operators to block malicious content. Ms Valentyna Shapovalova agreed that the platforms had a responsibility for countering disinformation and propaganda and also that legislators had to exert more pressure to curb their spread.
The chair of this part of the session, Mr Wille Valve of Åland, introduced Ms Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark, Associate Professor, LL.D. and Director at the Åland Islands Peace Institute.
Ms Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark noted that the major defenders of free speech in the late 18th century in the Nordic area had come from Finland. As a result, Sweden had enacted a progressive freedom of press law in 1765. She saw these actions as precursors to modern minority rights. In the present day, Ms Åkermark saw a reflection in a marginalisation of minority groups in the western world. She mentioned Russian-speaking minorities in Nordic and Baltic countries that felt disconnected, but a similar kind of othering had been levelled against the people of Åland. Ms Åkermark referred to the Copenhagen School’s terminology of securitization when a situation was presented as an existential threat by taking measures beyond what was considered normal. She stressed her fear that minorities in the western world were also depicted as stupid, illoyal, problematic and dangerous. Here, she quoted UN Secretary General António Guterres’ “tsunami of hate” and the Tallinn Guidelines asking politicians to distance themselves from polemics. Ms Åkermark underlined that she did not have any answers but could only ask questions, such as how these tendencies could be countered.
Co-chair Wille Valve continued to the open debate of the session.
Mr Himanshu Gulati from Norway believed that the issue of free media would become ever more important in the coming years. This concerned not only the safety of journalists but also the independence of media. In light of disinformation, the interpretation was changing, raising questions such as whether free media should allow the unchecked spread of false information. Aside from authoritarian states like Russia, Mr Gulati pointed to the United States where many people were living in completely separate, parallel realities. It was necessary to understand how people in the same society, with access to the same range of information could live in separate realities, based on the news they choose to watch and the echo chambers they selected for themselves. He stressed that protecting the free media had to include the combat against disinformation and lies.
Mr Simon Påvals from Åland underlined the importance of supporting the “other” Russia and Belarus, i.e., the ordinary people looking for a different future and liberal, democratic powers in those countries. It was crucial to remember that the target of the sanctions was Putin and the Russian regime rather than the people. He further highlighted the need to secure safe and free journalism in the present day and in the future.
Ms Hanna Katrín Friðriksson from the Nordic Council agreed that free media was one of the most important pillars of democracy because people had to be fully informed to make their decisions, whether voting, protesting or supporting. She strongly believed that the defence of free media had to be at the top of the priorities to focus on. In that respect, she mentioned the Nordic Journalistic Centre as one of the tools to fight fake news and disinformation.
Mr Wille Valve of Åland reflected that what one was allowed to say and when was a classic question. The current issue was massive propaganda, particularly in the Baltic States, the purpose of which was to destabilise the countries. Recently, Russian lawmakers had claimed Lithuanian independence illegal. This underlined the need to support the Baltic States by limiting the information warfare against them.
Mr Aron Emilsson from Sweden saw the issue of media freedom also as a question of equal treatment of the people. The challenge lay on the one hand, in the support of the digital revolution and new media as the new opinion square while, at the same time, be able to defend free speech. Internet giants had the power to reinforce or block opinions, had more influence than small states. However, it required regulation to keep their power in check while defending free speech and free media.
Ms Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby of Sweden wondered who defined fake news, disinformation and propaganda. That was always subjective, depending on where one was. The situation in Russia was clear to outsiders, yet she posited a scenario of another government declaring an angle of discussion as disinformation that it does not agree with. All of them at the Conference were sure they were on the right side, but she wondered what history’s judgment would be.
Mr Johannes Schraps of the German Bundestag considered free media a two-fold issue between those spreading propaganda and disinformation and those open to such disinformation. It was good for freedom of speech to be constitutionally protected, yet that also protected disinformation even though it threatened discourse and democracy itself. Mr Schraps pointed out the growing number of people believing fake news in their societies, despite having access to other information. Media literacy was a concern in his view.
Responding to the remarks, Mr Michael Jarlner picked up on Ms Shapovalova’s commenting who could access the Russian-language news on Politiken. He confirmed that not every VPN client could reach information outside Russia, but he insisted that providing alternatives was necessary, not least to show that the “other” Russia and Belarus had not been forgotten. Concerning censorship and disinformation, he noted that some countries had forbidden Russia Today as propaganda. On the other hand, he wondered if that was not responding with the same toolkit, adding that he preferred marking state media as such. On who should decide what was disinformation, he pointed to responsibility laws in several countries applying to newspapers. This did not apply to social media platforms where one could say whatever one wished. That meant, Mr Jarlner underlined, that such statements had to be countered and confronted. In that respect, he pointed to American media fact-checking statements by Donald Trump. Unfortunately, there were no clear-cut solutions.
Third Session on
Mitigating Climate Change, Preserving Biodiversity and Adapting to Climate Change
Chair Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby began by noting that climate change was the driver behind the dramatic increase of extreme weather events around the globe. It was obvious that efforts against climate change had to be speeded up if their sustainable development goals were to be met. She referred to the IPCC Climate Report.
Mr Anders Grönvall, State Secretary to the Minister for Environment and Climate, Sweden, spoke about the Stockholm +50 conference, highlighting the importance of multilateralism in these matters, harkening back to the original Stockholm conference of 1972. 155 countries were represented with over 4,000 people in total. States and stakeholders were calling for urgent action. He noted one conclusion, the call for a phase-out of fossil fuels. Collaboration and solidarity had to be reinforced so as to build trust. Mr Grönvall considered trust-building as perhaps the most important outcome. He added that young people had been included in all aspects of the conference, with intergenerationality being recognised as a cornerstone in international policymaking.
Moving on to the Swedish priorities in the Baltic Sea region, he stated that climate change was a threat to their forests, oceans and cities. At the same time, the region offered great opportunities for mitigation: More resilient forests could continue to provide biomass in the future. The Baltic Sea was stressed by deoxygenation, acidification and fast warming, severely impacting the ecosystem but also human populations, yet it could contribute to mitigation measures through wind turbines or coastal restoration. Shipping, agriculture and fishing had to be made sustainable. Climate change affected biodiversity, primarily through eutrophication by creating anoxic areas and algae blooms. Nutrient influx from agriculture had to be prevented as had pollution through microplastics, pharmaceuticals and other hazardous substances. The application of the ecosystem approach to fisheries was vital, in Mr Grönvall’s view. In light of the recently updated Baltic Sea Action Plan, he voiced his confidence that all of the necessary measures could be implemented. That had to be done right away.
Mr Kacper Płażyński asked why nuclear energy wasn’t mentioned. Mr Kai Mykkänen of Finland inquired how the Baltic Sea protection projects were to go on without Russian participation for the next decade. Mr Simon Påvals of Åland inquired if Sweden planned to change its trawling borders. To that, Mr Anders Grönvall answered that industries were implementing the green transition, e.g., to green steel. Sweden was using 35 % nuclear power, but building nuclear power plants took a long time, and the urgently growing energy need would be supplied by wind power as a more lucrative power source. Regarding HELCOM and Baltic Sea protection, the State Secretary saw an important discussion ahead on how to continue. Trawling rights were intended to secure the herring in that area, so Sweden was looking at many aspects, among them moving the border.
Chair Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby moved forward to the panel discussion on climate change and biodiversity, best practices and initiatives with Ms Inger Melander, Expert Fisheries and Market, WWF Sweden, Representative of the Baltic Sea NGO Forum; Mr Dennis Hamro-Drotz, senior programme manager at NEFCO; and the representatives from the Baltic Sea Parliamentarian Youth Forum, Mr Andreas Schoop and Ms Simona Jakaitė. The participants introduced themselves:
Ms Inger Melander explained the background of the WWF. As best practices, she presented harbour porpoise, coastal and archipelago areas, the Baltic Sea Farmer of the Year Award, projects trying to limit nutrient run-off, data gathering and monitoring of sea birds, fish stocks, nutrient overloading and a seafood guide for consumers.
Mr Dennis Hamro-Drotz said that NEFCO was the Nordic green bank. There were many good ideas how to combat climate change, but financing was often lacking. Founded by the five Nordic countries in the early 1990s, NEFCO was to address the environmental problems in the Baltic Sea, a mandate that had been extended to a global reach over time with link to Nordic countries. They had financed many wastewater solutions in the Nordic region but also Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. With respect to the various projects mentioned by Mr Grönvall earlier, Mr Hamro-Drotz said all of these areas had been covered by NEFCO and the Baltic Sea Action Plan. Every euro spent on such funds had resulted in seven euros coming in from other sources. More innovative projects were looking into nutrient reuse from animal husbandry; how to address greenhouse gas emissions from the seafloor in eutrophication areas; nutrient removal from the sea by fishing and processing low-value fish.
Mr Andreas Schoop and Ms Simona Jakaitė presented the final recommendations of the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum. After two days of deliberations of sixty young people, they were asking for increased biodiversity and carbon sequestration efforts; conservation of forests, wetlands and natural rivers; stopping clear-cutting; countering forest fires and pathogen spreads; research into emergency causes; common monitoring programmes. On innovation, their recommendation was to phase out fossil fuels and investing more in renewable energies; to support businesses in their transition. For greener cities, they were asking for greener and cheaper transport accessible not only in city centres; more car-free zones, more space for bikes or pedestrians; more diverse cities; more involvement of youths in city planning; legally binding quotas for fishing and determining what fishing nets could be used; regulating single-use plastics; restricting agricultural wastes before reaching the waters.
Mr Gennaro Migliore applauded the commitment of young people, noting that the PAM also had a youth platform. He stressed that the Mediterranean was the region most affected by climate change and therefore most interested in developing the blue economy. He seconded the Stockholm +50 conference’s call to intensify efforts against climate change. Furthermore, reinforcing renewable energy sources would help the phase-out of Russian fossil fuels and contribute to the green transition. The PAM would hold the first-ever Euro-Mediterranean Forum in Tangiers in early December 2022, with environmental issues surely a focus of discussion.
Mr Kacper Płażyński from Poland conceded that his country was also investing in renewable energies, such as wind farms, but insisted that renewables were unstable energy sources, but only coal and nuclear were stable and reliable. He talked about nuclear power plants as zero-emission and competitive and wanted more of them.
Mr Kai Mykkänen pointed out that eutrophication was common in Finnish archipelagos as well as the benefits of the circular economy. In that respect, he wondered if NEFCO was already investing in such projects.
Prof Jānis Vucāns, President of the Baltic Assembly, believed the topic of resilient cities from the youth forum should also be considered in the working group. The best definition described them as aggressively and practically designing strategies to be able to cope with future shocks to the infrastructure system. Self-sufficiency and energy efficiency were crucial in future-proofing. In the course of the Russian-induced energy crisis in the Baltic States, the Baltic Assembly had looked into stabilising the energy supply. Their solution was hydrogen; although currently very expensive, it was getting cheaper and cheaper. It could serve as an energy storage solution for wind and solar power. Energy storage – beyond hydrogen – was a major issue that the Nordic and Baltic countries should explore.
Mr Dennis Hamro-Drotz considered many of the Baltic Sea problems as transboundary and thus more difficult to solve. He personally did not see any need to import any more chemical fertiliser from outside when the circular economy could exploit the excess of nutrients flowing into the water. There were novel technologies experimenting here as well as regenerative agriculture and forestry. NEFCO did finance Nordic SMEs and start-ups but mainly projects of an international nature, although they were interested in more projects within the Nordic region. He pointed out that there also were the Nordic Investment Bank and the Baltic Sea Action Plan Fund for financing opportunities in piloting projects.
The most urgent action for policymakers in the view of Ms Inga Melander was marine conservation management. It was crucial to implement what was written in legislation and conventions. She called for an ecosystem-based management approach and a precautionary approach rather than waiting for new research and reacting too late.
Ms Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby mentioned that most projects examined by the BSPC Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity were at the local level because the whole society needed to be a part of it to make the project successful, from governments down to the local people. To the question of how to achieve this involvement, Ms Inga Melander reiterated that a project had to be implemented and not put-upon individual citizens’ responsibility to choose what to consume or to recycle. Best practices were good, but she placed the focus on policymakers.
Mr Dennis Hamro-Drotz reflected that financially viable projects related to the Baltic Sea were hard to find, compared to climate change-focused projects. He saw a need, also for legislation, to force a way in a certain direction and to funnel soft money, such as grant financing or cheap loans, into such efforts. They would need a lot of time to become financially viable and attract private capital.
Mr Andreas Schoop pointed to sea-dumped ammunitions as a vital challenge to be resolved, requiring policy decisions.
Ms Simona Jakaitė Ms Jakaitė believed in education to shape the next generation’s minds and opening them to finding solutions.
Mr Wille Valve was interested in the future of industrial fishing, specifically regarding herring. Ms Inga Melander highlighted economic and environmental sustainability, while an ecosystem-based approach was necessary to manage herring stocks with regard to size and age but also other species and habitats. The Swedish consideration of an expanded trawler border could provide more shelter for marine animals, primarily cod.
Ms Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby asked a final question to the panel on how to keep the focus on climate change in these troubling times.
Ms Inga Melander said one had to remain hopeful, reiterating the ecosystem-based approach. Mr Dennis Hamro-Drotz noted that crises such as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine had shown that financial means could quickly be provided to solve them. Prevention was far cheaper than solution but much harder to finance.
Mr Andreas Schoop agreed about prevention, even on the small scale. Ms Simona Jakaitė hoped that more creative approaches could be found for prevention.