Why are the Dutch demanding to shut down the EU’s only anti-propaganda service?

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Hybrid War

Article by: Marta Barandiy

EUvsDisinfo, the first – and only – Western state response to Russian propaganda, is under attack from within the EU. First, three Dutch outlets sued the service for including their publications in the list. Now, a Dutch minister has been pressured to lobby for the closure of the service. What is happening in The Netherlands? Marta Barandiy from the NGO Promote Ukraine explains.

What is EUvsDisinfo?

The East StratCom Task Force, or EUvsDisinfo, is an operational working group on strategic communications of the European External Action Service (EEAS). It was established on the demand of the European Council in 2015 to challenge the Russian “disinformation campaign.”

The objectives of the department are:

  • effective communication and promotion of EU policies towards the Eastern Neighbourhood;
  • strengthening the overall media environment in the Eastern Neighbourhood and in EU Member States;
  • improved EU capacity to forecast, address and respond to disinformation activities by external actors.

One of the main tasks of EUvsDisinfo is constant reporting on and analysis of disinformation trends, explanation and correction of disinformation narratives, and raising awareness of disinformation. The most visible result of the work of the EUvsDisinfo is a regularly updated list with examples of how disinformation comes to the European media space.

In other words, it tracks fake news in the information flows of European countries. The basis of this department is the research of a network of volunteers who find articles containing elements of propaganda and send to it for verification. By 2018 there were around 4000 contributions to the list of the examples of Russian disinformation.

“Dutch scandal”

In December 2017, several Dutch articles were spotted in EUvsDisinfo’s database. The Dutch newspapers De Gelderlander and the websites GeenStijl and The Post Online protested against putting them on the list.

As a result of the protest, the EUvsDisinfo has withdrawn the cases of these organizations from its database. Despite this, they launched legal proceedings against the EEAS, claiming a €20,000 fine for each day their name was on the list. For now, the proceedings have been stopped. However, on 6 March 2018, the Dutch Lower House of Parliament has adopted a motion calling for the EU to disband the EUvsDisinfo project, and Interior Minister Kajsa Ollongren has been pressured into lobbying Brussels to abolish the service.

Here are the articles under question:

1. #Bruslog: Thierry Baudet is Neerlands belangrijkste expert over Oekraïne (Politiek), is a factual reportage about the debates about the Ukraine-Referendum in the Netherlands during Forum for Democracy in 2015. The author of the reportage Chris Aalberts describes a discussion between a guest Stefan Huijboom, a Kyiv-based correspondent, and host Thierry Baudet, a pro-Russian Dutch politician. Both speakers spoke negatively about Ukraine. One of the arguments of our organization Promote Ukraine, which submitted this case to EUvsDisinfo, was that this article contains the lead paragraph “Ukrainian army works with ISIS,” which does not correspond to reality, and that many readers often scan the titles and lead paragraphs of the articles rather than the full text. After the complaint of the newspaper and thorough check-up of EUvsDisinfo, the article was removed from the list because it was actually not fake news.

2. Buk-fabrikant verwerpt conclusies MH17 (De Gederlander) is a news item about a press-conference of the Buk manufacturer who stated the rocket that shot down the Malaysian airliner MH17 above the warzone in Donbas in July 2014 was launched from Ukrainian government-controlled territory. This conspiracy theory, one of the two most popular ones seeking to obfuscate the fact that it was a Russian Buk coming from Russian territory which shot down MH17, was disproved by the findings of the Joint Investigative Team.

Promote Ukraine filed this case to EUvsDisinfo as one that retransmits Russian propaganda, as no alternative point of view was given in the article. Nevertheless, it was removed from the list after the complaint of De Gederlander. Yet this case is hardly a mistake, as no alternative point of view was given in the article. Although the newspaper published news about MH17 from different perspectives, different viewpoints were not published in one article, especially one containing Russian disinformation. The newspaper argued that it merely wrote what was said during the press-conference of the Buk manufacturer. But then there is a risk that the more press-conferences will be given by the manufacturer (read: the Kremlin) the more place their propaganda will gain in the information space of the European countries.

3. Live! GeenPeil-lezing Porosjenko aan Uni Leiden (GeenStijl) is about the speech of Ukrainian President Poroshenko at the University of  Leiden and criticism of his power, claiming that the Ukrainian government is one of the most corrupt governments in the continent, there are fascistic undercurrents in Ukraine, that Ukraine is at the epicentre of human trafficking, and that there are no European values in Ukraine. Again, Promote Ukraine submitted this article to EUvsDisinfo as containing a number of clichés of Russian propaganda. Our argument was that the author ignores the events of EuroMaidan and Ukraine’s aspiration to European values. Due to the fact that this is a “shock-blog” and that the statements of the author have active links to other news and opinions, EUvsDisinfo removed this article from their database.

Thus, three articles have been withdrawn, but in fact, only two can be considered to be a mistake (the news about the Buk press-conference indeed contains disinformation).

Screenshot

(Screenshot from the Wayback Machine)

4. Additionally, the headline of an article on NPO Radio was changed from “Right extremists are taking power in Ukraine” to “Growing influence of extremists in Ukraine.” Therefore, the article had been removed from the database.

5. The fifth article under question, from GeenStijl, is still on the list as it contains a fake video, and nobody has claimed it should be removed.

azov

The fake Azov video in EUvsDisinfo’s database

After the complaints, EUvsDisinfo changed their wording from “Disinforming outlet” to the “Outlet where disinformation appeared” and explained that it is not about the messenger but about the message that contains Russian propaganda. This did not help to calm down the Dutch journalists, some of whom demand to shut down the department due to fears that EU authorities control the information flow in European countries.

EUvsDisinfo’s database gives the journalists the feeling that the EEAS interferes with the free press. Therefore, the Parliament and journalists pressured Minister of Interior Kajsa Ollongren to lobby for the abolishment of EUvsDisinfo in the EU. The head of the EU-expert group on fake news Madeleine de Cock Buning also stands for the removal of the list, as it constitutes a danger of the misuse of the governments.

Why were these questions raised only in December 2017?

In December 2017, a raise of the budget of the team was discussed by European institutions. This is when the Dutch newspapers checked the database, apparently for the first time, and four of them found their articles in it.

Besides, EUvsDisinfo’s new website with an easily accessible list was created only recently. Before that, the list of propaganda items was distributed to the network of the East Strat Com through email and published on social media. Now anybody can easily filter pieces of disinformation by language and outlet.

Conclusion

Two mistakes out of EUvsDisinfo’s 4000 cases have led to Dutch journalists and politicians demanding to shut down this important department, claiming that the EU should not accuse journalists or decide what is true news and what is false news. However, they ignore three crucial facts.

The articles in question were submitted in 2015-2016, when the department was newly set up – since then, it has professionalized. As well, the mistakes constitute a mere 0,05% of all addressed disinformation articles. Additionally, that the list is not a “product” of the EU but of civil society and journalists to whom the EU gives a platform to share the findings.

barandiy

Marta Barandiy, PH.D. in International Law (Saarland University), the founder and chairwoman of the NGO Promote Ukraine, Brussels (www.promoteukraine.org)

 

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