by Tatiana Cojocari, PhD candidate, Sociological Department, University of Bucharest, Research Assistant, Institute of Political Science and Foreign Policy “I.C.Brătinanu”; Ievgen Afanasiev, Master Student, School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences; Dzmitry Halubnichy, Junior analyst, Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies
The years 2014-2015 created an unprecedented situation in Eastern Europe. The Ukrainian example showed that there could be another kind of war – „hybrid warfare” – and one of the predominant battlegrounds of this war is the information era, skillfully transformed by the Russian Federation into an era of misinformation, manipulation and propaganda. The states of Eastern Europe, caught in the trap of Russian mass-media for years, awoke in full information war waged by the Russian Federation through all available means of mass media: television, internet, radio and written press, exploiting their vulnerabilities and creating the premise for an internal destabilization. Are the Eastern European States prepared to face this new kind of threat to national security on their own?
Information war, through all its elements (misinformation, propaganda and manipulation) has a destructive potential towards the integrity and stability of a state, negatively influencing the local public opinion, affecting strategic vectors of foreign policy, influencing internal politics by damaging governmental institutions and diminishing societal trust in the national defense system and its capability of protecting the population and borders. Otherwise said, information war has all the necessary elements to be perceived as one of the gravest threats to the national security of a state, especially for ones with a young democracy, shaky institutions eroded by corruption, aspiring to a European future, such as Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, where the Russian mass media feels at home.
The fact that all three states are members of the Eastern Partnership increases the risk of hybrid warfare on their territory, in particular in the moment when they will take strong commitments to choose the European way. Ukraine and Moldova already expressed this intention starting with negotiating and ratifying AA and DCFTA. Belarus can be the next one. In this context it is necessary to analyze the degree of vulnerability and exposure of these states to the threat of information warfare, and most importantly, their individual capacity to counteract, so that, learning the Ukrainian lesson, the possibility of a similar scenario taking place on their territories would be diminished.
Ukraine: ”younger sister” fighting ”elder brother’s” media
Information attacks on the Ukrainian society have started way before the Euromaidan protests, annexation of Crimea and conflict in Donbas. Indeed, following the victory of Orange revolution in 2004, main Russian media channels have been trying to discredit Ukrainian authorities and their aspirations towards European integration of Ukraine. Notably, Russian media used to broadcast without restrain in the information space of the Ukrainian state, which made it easy for Russia to spread the messages of any content across the population. In 2013, when Euromaidan protests started, the number of the messages with explicit anti-Ukraine sentiments increased dramatically. According to the recent research, conducted by Internews, 71% of the population of Donetsk oblast watched Russian TV-channels at the beginning of the conflict. Being one of the most popular sources of information, Russian media outlets started to use propaganda and fake news as the main instrument of influence on the population and government. Trying to demonize European Union and popularize so called “Russian World” through the messages generated by federal channels, Russia managed to gain great support of population in Crimea and Donbas, which caused the loss of the control over these territories by Ukrainian government.
To protect the information space of Ukraine and to stop the spread of separatist sentiments, Ukrainian authorities took several steps towards the prohibition of Russian media on the territory of Ukraine. Such laws as 159-19 and 3359 prohibit public demonstration of the films and TV-series, which were created by private persons and legal bodies of Russian Federation and where the authorities of Russia are propagandized. The law 2766, which was recently signed by president Poroshenko, provides excluding of Russia-originated content from the quota of the content made in Europe, the US in Canada, which results in the further decrease of Russian media product in Ukrainian media landscape. At the same time the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council of Ukraine, the state broadcast regulator, reconstituted by the parliament in 2014, has adopted a number of decrees, which prohibit the broadcasting of Russian channels on territory of Ukraine. Finally, while some non-governmental organizations, such as “Detektor Media”, monitor the Ukrainian media landscape for the presence of Russia-originated propaganda content, other ones, such as “Stop-Fake”, are focused on the debunking of the fake messages, originated by Russian media outlets.
One of the most controversial decisions of the Ukrainian government was to create the Ministry of Information, which was considered by European partners and some organizations in Ukraine (e.g. “Stop Censorship” movement, Institute of Mass Information) to be some kind of “ministry of truth” or “ministry of censorship”. Nevertheless, some of the projects of this institution contribute to the counter-propaganda. Ministry of Information of Ukraine founded “Information forces of Ukraine”, the project that aims to involve the users of the social networks to deliver trustworthy information about Ukraine and fight Russian propaganda. Besides, Ministry creates virus videos on the eve of important national holidays, where Ukrainian view of history is illustrated and Ukrainian national identity is promoted.
However, greater part of the job is still to be done. Namely, the broadcasting of the Ukrainian channels on the occupied territories is still not renewed. Moreover, in the area situated close to the frontline, “LDNR”-originated content is freely broadcasted.Russian channels, such as “Zvezda” or “Russia Today” and separatists’ media (e.g. “Novorossiya-TV”, “First Republican Chanel”) are present in the information space of the occupied territories, while Ukrainian channels are absent. What is also important is the fact that soldiers of Ukrainian army, who are located close to frontline, do not have any access to the Ukrainian TV-channels and have to watch the channels of the opposing side. This is the problem that can be only resolved by construction of additional television towers, which will cover the territories controlled by self-proclaimed “LDNR”.
To sum up, Ukrainian government together with with the NGOs managed to stop the growing popularity of Russian media on the territory of the country and take some measures to protect information space of Ukraine. The process of legislative reform in the field of information policy has started. However, the broadcasting of Ukrainian TV-channels on the occupied territories is still problematic, as the government has not realized any projects, which would aim to build additional television towers and jam separatists’ broadcasters.
Moldova’s information war:“to be or not to be”
Moldova’s degree of exposure to information war can be assessed through the perception and trust of the population in mass media. Thereby, 67,9% of the citizens of the Republic of Moldova consider television as the most trustworthy source of information. For 19% of them, Russian language mass media represents the exclusive information source, 29% prefer consuming mass-media in both languages, and 76,6% follow mass media influenced in one way or another by the Russian media. The citizens of the Republic of Moldova don’t trust local media, thinking that it manipulates the public opinion in favor of certain political parties. This way, they put more trust in Russian media (46,3%), than in local or foreign media, which are inaccessible for the most of them. In other words, the citizens of Moldova are exposed one way or another to the elements of Russian information war, manifested massively through television.
Being conscious about the risks that the abovementioned facts could bring for the national integrity and stability, the state institutions have had a hesitant start to take some measures as a response to this new kind of threat. Remarkable in this sense was the activity of the Audiovisual Coordinating Council of Moldova, which since 2014 has started a few thematic monitoring campaigns of informative-analytical shows, through which it was shown that by „broadcasting news shows and informative-analytical shows from the Russian Federation by the TV channels „Prime”, „TV 7”, „Ren Moldova”, „RTR Moldova” and „Rossia 24”, the public national mediatic environment is being poisoned” and ”the manipulation of public opinion is done through propagandistic and manipulator messages, by way of commenting and framing of events, by broadcasting messages of hate and interethnic disunion” . As a result, the Council decided to fine the mentioned TV shows and revoked broadcasting rights of the Rossia 24 TV station. Obviously, this measure did not come without a response from certain local political groups close to Russia, as well as from the Russian Federation itself, being called an undemocratic measure, against the pluralism of opinion, meant to establish censorship. „Rossia 24” has been penalized before in 2014. That time the broadcast rights of the Rossia 24 TV station also had been revoked, but only for 6 months.
Similar monitoring reports, following both the rebroadcasted Russian stations as well as local ones, are also constantly made by a series of NGOs under the program name „Stop Fals” (stop false) aiming to promote press integrity and pluralism in the Republic of Moldova. Though they are accessible to a broad audience, they have low visibility, most likely not reaching the public directly targeted by the information war.
Currently, on the agenda of the national institutions is a series of priority legislative projects which can impact the state’s capacity to counteract the effects of information war. Among these is the Law of the New Audiovisual Code, asked for by the civil society; the initiative to modify and extend the law pertaining to access to information, on which also, the NGOs contributed to; the legislative initiative pertaining the reform of the Information and Security Service of The Republic of Moldova, criticized by the civil society; as well as the initiative of a new national defense strategy, which can be currently considered the only document which speaks about the new vulnerability – foreign propaganda – as part of information war.
Also, a series of heated reactions among the public opinion have recently manifested towards two legislative initiatives proposed by the pro-European parties (the Liberal Party and the Democratic Liberal Party) aiming to change the Audiovisual Code (Law 125/02.04.2015 and Law 218/22.05.2015). These initiatives, according to the authors, appeared in the context of the necessity to protect the local informational space from the foreign (Russian) influence, being inspired by similar efforts from Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine. Their stipulations are focused especially on foreign programs rebroadcasted on national territory, the language of the broadcast and encouraging local media production. The most controversial change is the one regarding banning of broadcasts originating from countries which haven’t ratified the 2002 European Convention regarding cross-border television (e.g. Russia). The two legislative projects were submitted for public debate, as well as consultations from representative experts of European institutions, considering that the 30 NGOs from the Republic of Moldova have asked that the adoptions of these laws be postponed, because their stipulations could impact editorial freedom and even pose a threat to the freedom of expression. More than this, mass-media representatives consider the stipulations regarding propaganda prevention from Russian TV stations as an “important mask” and a trap which will lead to introducing restrictions towards journalists from publicizing the Government of the Republic of Moldova, especially in the context of the coming presidential elections. Foreign experts’ response (European Council, OSCE, Freedom House), was a reserved one, supporting the civil society and mentioning that some of the stipulations needed to be clarified as not to lead to censorship.
After almost two years since the start of the information war in the region and near the presidential elections in Republic of Moldova, most of the concrete measures adopted by the institutions responsible with national security are legislative proposals in an incipient phase, severely criticized by the civil society, invoking the states intention of transforming into a Big Brother. To the tangible measures, already implemented, such as the Audiovisual Council’s decision to fine and suspend certain stations rebroadcasted by the Russian Federation, can be added the initiatives of some NGOs to act as “watch dogs” in order to promote quality journalism. It’s just that neither these activities, nor the fines sent by the Audiovisual Council have prevented broadcasters from breaking the law.
Most times the fines and blocking of rebroadcasts have been repeated, because the Russian broadcasts continued to break the law. This is due, partly to the fact that the fines represent insignificant costs to the TV stations, not affecting their budgets, and also to the pressure of political parties close to Russia, which call on the right to freedom of expression and the rights of minorities (although the Russian nationality is just 5.9% of the population as of the 2004 census).
Belarus’ dependency on Russian mass-media
Russia’s information influence in Belarus is streamlined through major state media. Russia’s major TV channels – the First Channel, RTR, NTV, Ren-TV – are part of Belarus’ mandatory generally accessible TV package – 9 channels whose dissemination is organized and sponsored by the Government. However, Russian content is broadcasted under original Russian brands only in case of NTV and RTR. The First Channel and Ren-TV content are broadcasted as parts of Belarusian channels’ feeds – respectively ONT (the most popular TV channel in Belarus) and STV. Due to economic issues the ratio of originally produced content in those to nominally Belarusian channels dropped dramatically in 2015-2016 (to about 30 per cent). This makes them dependent on Russian counterparts. This dependence is further increased by lack of Belarusian TV-channels’ direct access to international advertisement market as they have to work with Russia’s Video International ads seller. This substantially limits the opportunities of Belarusian state-owned media.
The fifth out of 9 channels of mandatory generally accessible TV package is the channel Mir broadcasted by the CIS interstate TV and Radio Company which is also heavily influenced by Russia (the headquarters are in Moscow), although its content strives to be consensus-based for all CIS countries and thus politically neutral.
Other channels of Russia’s direct information influence in Belarus include Internet websites, including the Russia Today information agency website (sputnik.by) and bureau recently opened in Minsk as well as Yandex Belarusian branch. Besides, wider Russian content is accessible to Belarusian users of cable TV and satellite TV.
Belarusian authorities have the technical ability to interrupt broadcasting of Russia’s channels disseminated in Belarus. This was done repeatedly in 2010 when Moscow was conducting aggressive anti-Lukashenko propaganda in the wake of Belarus’ presidential elections. However since then there were no examples of that. Generally, Belarusian state-owned TV channels are tasked with producing as much of their own content as possible, but this requirement is barely fulfilled due to the economic situation.
Generally, Russia’s information influence in Belarus goes virtually unchecked. Belarusian audience was exposed to aggressive anti-Ukraine and anti-Western propaganda after the unset of the Ukraine crisis and still consumes heavily biased information on those matters today.
Lots of users of Belarus’ cable networks (concentrated predominantly in bigger cities like Minsk, regional centers, Bobruisk, Baranovichi, Borisov, Molodechno and some others) have access to Euronews content that gives them some insight on the European view of current developments.
However despite the fact that the government spends significant amounts on the ideological network, the state media do not even try to produce quality content for the domestic market. If necessary, the Belarusian media are able to provide only Belarusian-made news content, but they will be unable to compete with the Russian media.
Analysis of the measures adopted in all three states to counteract the effects of information war, showed that neither of the three states is fully ready to face on their own this new vulnerability towards national security.
Measures taken to counteract information war by the three states are limited to legislative initiatives, harshly criticized by the civil society and European institutions, and whose efficiency can’t be fully assessed. Ukraine is one step ahead, creating The Ministry of Information, which despite all criticism seems to have some concrete anti-propaganda instruments.
Of a major importance is the fact that the governments of Republic of Moldova and Belarus still don’t have a clear narrative on the presence of information warfare between its borders on the local level. Also, in Belarus the official acknowledgment on the presence of information war isn’t wanted, as long as the presence of this phenomenon doesn’t directly affect the presidency.
Telling is also the fact that in three states there is no real alternative to the massive presence of Russian channels. Western mass media aren’t widely present, inaccessible to the majority of the population which is also the most exposed to information war (rural population, age 40 and older, secondary education). Local TV stations remain the only solution for diminishing the impact of information war, albeit in the Republic of Moldova and Belarus, these don’t have the capacity to broadcast more than they already do, not being able to face the competition brought by Russian mass media. Even if they’d find a way to fix this problem, national stations have one more important goal: regaining the viewers trust.
The European institutions’ recommendations in the field are vague, lack proper understanding of the realities of the three states, or not having viable solutions for the new threat – information war.
- Adopting a 3 + 2 (Ukraine, Republic of Moldova, Belarus + NATO, EU) working format for elaborating a common regional strategy on implementing measures to counteract information war;
- Creating strategic partnerships on a regional level for the common securitization of the informational space;
- Reforming the institutions responsible with national security and creating a department specialized in new hybrid warfare threats;
- Opening the local media environment to European partners by adopting a legislative framework based on European standards.
- Creating a special fund in the Eastern Partnership states aimed at:
- encouraging independent journalism;
- financially supporting local media products;
- forming experts in security studies and the new threats to national security;
- supporting non-governmental organizations which can constantly monitor the media landscape for the presence of propaganda messages.
Special recognition is owed to the contributions of: Elena Mârzac, Information and Documentation Centre on NATO in Moldova; Olexiy Zakharchenko, journalist, social activist; Yuri Tsarik, the Chairman of the Supervisory Board, Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies
”Measuring media consumer perception in Republic of Moldova on socio-political new” study by the Center for Independent Journalism,(2015).Chisinau.
 CNA monitoring raport, (2015). Chisinau.
 See: http://infoeuropa.md/mass-media/avizul-consiliului-europei-cu-privire-la-proiectul-de-lege-pentru-completarea-codului-audiovizualului-al-republicii-moldova/ , accessed on 5th September, 2016.