Bojan Maričikj: Anti-democratic propaganda cannot last long, citizens are tired of destructive narratives
In an interview with Truthmeter, Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Bojan Maričikj spoke about the effect of disinformation in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the strategies that the Republic of North Macedonia is undertaking to combat them. According to him, not only the Macedonian society is attacked by disinformation, but also it is a world phenomenon. The most commonly seen in the public discourse, according to him, are the narratives that “Ukraine attacked Russia”, “the West provoked the war”, “Russia attacked in response to NATO threats” and similar disinformation. Maričikj believes that such disinformation, however, cannot do much political damage, because citizens recognize them and do not trust them
Author: Miroslava Burns
Mr. Maričikj, what are the views of the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia on Russian disinformation related to the war in Ukraine? Are they considered a serious obstacle in the relations between the two countries, whether and how much they interfere in the fulfillment of our obligations as a NATO member, whether they intensified after the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the country and, in general, what is the view of the Government on Russian disinformation in the current political moment?
– It is not only the Macedonian society that deals with disinformation, but also the whole world, because they are a global problem and no society is immune to them. The democratic world is under constant attack by underground propaganda centers aimed at instilling fear and insecurity in the population, undermining democracies and, in a dishonest, manipulative manner, to the detriment of the public interest and the well-being of citizens, spreading influence of third parties. These centers of influence and power fail to gain the support of the majority of citizens through the democratic contest of concepts and ideas. The government has resolutely opposed disinformation and is constantly establishing partnerships in this global battle, with NATO, Facebook and Google, independent fact-checking services, domestic institutions, media organizations and the media. It handles disinformation on a daily basis, through its established crisis communications system, created with the support of the British Government. It is a system through which a very suspicious news is checked immediately and if it is false, the ways and channels of reaction are immediately defined, in order to prevent further spread. We have also introduced active transparency of the institutions in order for the correct information to be constantly available and visible to the public, which reduces the room for maneuver of the disinformers. In the area of legislation and punishment, resolving suspicions of hate speech crimes will also send a serious message to disinformers. The Government’s plan for dealing with disinformation is broad, comprehensive and open, and for new successes it is necessary to involve as many allies and supporters of the correct facts as possible, at the public and open presentation of arguments.
What narratives and disinformation, originating from Russia or the media close to the Kremlin, do you most often notice in public discourse? Do you consider them dangerous and with a large capacity for inflicting political damage in the country?
Narratives such as “Ukraine attacked Russia,” The West provoked the war “,” Russia attacked in response to NATO threats”,” Putin conquered Kyiv in one day “,” The Americans and the British want war at all costs “, and the similar disinformation that spread around the world came to us as well. However, at the same time the support for Russia was fueled by certain pro-Russian groups, which acted and act mainly through groups and Facebook pages. The government deals with the spread of such disinformation or false news through daily honest and open communication with the public. We are in constant communication with our partners from the EU and NATO, we communicate in a coordinated manner and we do everything in our power for our citizens to be properly informed, i.e. to receive accurate information from relevant sources. I do not believe that they can do great political damage, because the citizens already recognize them and do not trust them. Polls over the years have shown strong support for the country’s EU membership, so such narratives coming from fake news outlets do not get the desired placement and trust, but on the contrary, make the public more selective about information.
Do you notice narratives that use the current invasion of Ukraine to distance us from NATO and our path to the EU, narratives through which North Macedonia is asked to make a choice between the West and Russia? And whether Russia is presented as “brotherly”, Slavic , Orthodox country, while the West and its institutions, of which the country is a member or to which it traditionally aspires, are given all sorts of negative epithets in order to blacken it, present it as distant and foreign, in order to create a repulsion of citizens towards Western politics, values and democratic achievements?
– Disinformation undermines citizens’ trust in democracy and democratic institutions and poses a great challenge to European democracies and societies. That is why we need to resolve them in accordance with European values and freedoms. The government is committed to implementing European reforms and has been doing so successfully for the last 5 years. The approximation of European standards and values to our citizens is the goal we have set and we are constantly working in that direction, thus clearly defining the European future of the country. The goal is not to denigrate Russia, but to ensure a controlled flow of information to our public, not in terms of censorship, but on the contrary, in terms of enabling the flow of relevant and accurate information that will properly inform the public about what is really happening, not only in Ukraine but in Europe and the world in general.
How satisfied are you with the implementation of the Plan for decisive action against the spread of disinformation and against attacks on democracy proposed by the previous government almost two years ago? Do you think that the plan already needs to be amended, especially given the new situation with the war in Ukraine? On the other hand, do you think that activities in this area should be coordinated internationally in cooperation with Western partners? Are there any such initiatives or joint actions at the international level now, in which North Macedonia is also involved?
– I am satisfied, but it can always be better when it comes to implementation. The plan must be upgraded and adapted to the challenges of the new time. Many of the measures envisaged in the plan have already been implemented, and will encourage cooperation with the European Commission and will request inclusion in the Rapid Alert System, in order to exchange information on the content and topics of disinformation campaigns across Europe. Additionally, we are involved in several regional disinformation management projects. This Government continues to support any activity that comes from the civil sector because this is a joint fight against organized attempts aimed at undermining the democratic process.
The goal is not to denigrate Russia,
but to allow the flow of relevant and accurate information about what is really happening,
not only in Ukraine but in general, in Europe and in the world
How is the implementation of sanctions against Russia going now? Are there attacks, pressures, disinformation or false narratives in this regard, through which their mitigation or abolition is sought?
– From the very beginning of the aggression in Ukraine, the Government has fully harmonized its policy with the EU foreign policy and here we have left no room for the dilemma, we have clearly sided with the EU as a candidate country for full membership. We stand together in the sanctions against Russia. In terms of information, North Macedonia, side by side with the allies, managed to exclude “Russia Today” from its media space. Anti-democratic propaganda can not last long because it is not based on truths, and on the other hand our citizens are already tired of narratives that obviously do not carry a friendly climate but have destructive goals.
Do Russian misinformation and narratives pose a danger to the European perspectives of North Macedonia and personally, do you think that the disinformation about the war in Ukraine easily reaches the Macedonian citizen and deceives them?
– The European perspective of North Macedonia is clearly defined, the Government is doing everything in its power to maintain it despite the decisions within the enlargement policy of the Union which made it difficult for us to maintain credibility and trust among citizens in the EU as our partner. The fact that the disinformation about the war in Ukraine easily reaches the Macedonian citizen is, unfortunately, true, but I do not believe that they deceive him, because I have already said that our citizens have the opportunity to select information and I think they recognize the false, and on the other hand have access to relevant sources from which they can be informed.
Various public opinion polls in the country in the past year or two show much more positive attitudes towards Russia (and even towards China), to some extent support for membership in the Eurasian Union led by Russia and the like. What is the reason for this and is the Government working on increasing the confidence in the direction of joining the EU?
– I personally do not believe that the citizens choose other options than the European one. I think that such polls are part of the attempts to distort the true image and misinform, and even manipulate the public. Polls in support of the European perspective and EU membership, on the other hand, show high public support for the Union, although the disappointment of a long wait for a date for the start of negotiations is obvious. For this reason, this is probably due to desperate attempts by many parties to reduce the high level of trust enjoyed by the Government by the citizens and their support for what we do – European reforms for a better life, approximation to European standards and averages in the direction of on securing full EU membership.
Does the general foreign policy of North Macedonia aimed at EU membership remain unchanged or is it threatened by Russian disinformation narratives?
– Of course, it remains unchanged, it would not be serious for the Government to succumb to Russian disinformation narratives when we worked so intensively and dedicatedly on the European integration processes and we are still working.
Misinformation about the war in Ukraine,
unfortunately, easily reach the Macedonian citizen,
but I do not believe they are deceiving them
In the past two and a half months, as long as the war in Ukraine has lasted, one can hear in the media in the country the terminology used by the Kremlin and which reflects the views and policies of the Kremlin. Therefore, instead of saying “invasion of Ukraine” or “war in Ukraine” it says “special operation of Russian forces in Ukraine”, one of the two separatist Ukrainian regions in the east of the country, Donetsk, is called the “People’s Republic of Ukraine Donetsk “and the like. What do you think about the use of such terms in the central news programs of these media?
– Well, we are above all a democratic country with a high degree of media freedom – this was confirmed by world rankings of prestigious agencies. According to Reporters Without Borders’ World Media Freedom Index, North Macedonia is up 33 places in 2021. Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the country, although it is apparently being abused by certain centers to distort the image, specifically of the war in Ukraine. I believe that the media themselves should reconsider the narratives and sources from which they receive information and provide citizens with objective and accurate information. Otherwise, they themselves risk losing their viewers, because you cannot survive long and maintain support based on incorrect information.
Not all neighboring countries are members of NATO, not even candidates for NATO membership, and not all are members of the EU. In some of the neighboring countries, there are serious and important political structures that are completely pro-Russian and support the invasion of Ukraine. Such neighboring countries have powerful media sectors, which have influence and whose media are consumed on the territory of North Macedonia. There are many who openly praise and support the invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin’s policies. What is the influence of the media from neighboring countries in spreading Russian disinformation in North Macedonia?
– We are actively working to improve relations and cooperation with neighboring countries, they are our neighbors and we should have honest and friendly relations. The Open Balkan Initiative in that context is of great importance for the whole region and is a contribution to the regional cooperation of the countries, through the implementation of European values in the region. Open Balkan contributes to deepening cooperation, by opening opportunities for greater regional competitiveness in the European market and other world markets and in terms of attracting foreign investors, but on the other hand, allows governments that are together in the initiative to exchange information and in terms of informing the citizens. The position of certain political structures in the region does not necessarily mean danger or threat for North Macedonia, because in our country the situation is not like that. We remain committed to our strategic priorities and with the commitment and will of the Government to address such challenges, I believe we will not find ourselves in a situation of widespread Russian disinformation. Access to media from neighboring countries has an impact, but I do not think it is crucial.
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