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22nd Jan 2022

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EU struggles to fight disinformation within

  • MEP Sandra Kalniete has argued for making digital platforms adhere to a mandatory code of conduct (Photo: European Parliament)
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The EU is likely to remain toothless against politicians, governments or public institutions in member states that spread disinformation.

"The problem is, what if the government is entirely or partly distributing fake news," Latvian MEP Sandra Kalniete, a key lawmaker in the European Parliament's fight against disinformation, told a group of journalists.

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The MEP said the key thing the EU can do "is to indicate that this is a fake news, or this oversteps the objective reality and facts".

"But what else, I would hesitate to propose, because it is quite a new situation," she said, adding that it relates to national competencies - so the EU has little room for manoeuvre.

"In a way, it is very much linked to the hot topic, which is on the agenda, about rule of law," Kalniete said, adding that "the majority of those involved in that sort of disinformation, coming from third countries, and some of them are hostile countries to the EU, they also are tempted to overstep the rule of law."

Poland and Hungary have been under EU scrutiny for concerns over rule of law and judicial independence, and experts have also pointed to Hungarian public institutions spreading disinformation.

The 68-year old centre-right MEP has drawn up a report that includes recommendations to the EU Commission and member states on what legislative loopholes to close in order to fight foreign interference in the EU.

It was drafted under the special committee dealing with foreign interference.

It includes proposals on making all types of political party contributions from outside the EU illegal in every member state, defending critical infrastructure, tackling "elite capture" in EU countries, supporting independent journalism, and ramping up Mandarin-language knowledge in EU counter-disinformation units.

The draft report also highlighted that awareness-raising was key in member states, and EU institutions about foreign malign influence.

"Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes have funnelled more than $300m [€259m] into 33 countries to interfere in democratic processes," the draft said.

Asked what is the red line when foreign influence attempts actually bear fruit and change European political processes, Kalniete said it was hard to pinpoint one single benchmark.

"This is not entirely possible to put in legal language," she said.

"There is only one eventually sure remedy, that is time-consuming, which is resilience-building in society," she said.

Kalniete said that it was very important for the EU to find ways to support quality journalism. Another key tool, she said, was education which "can provide not only with facts but also with skills for media literacy and not be naive and fall [for] any disinformation".

'Naming and shaming'

The former Latvian foreign minister said the report had received a whopping 1,210 amendments so far. MEPs will get to vote in the plenary in March.

Kalniete is seeking to find the right balance. "My challenge is not to make the report into a Christmas tree," she said, referring to not wanting to make the final report lose its focus. Nevertheless, she expects the 33-page report to double in size.

She said the negotiations are likely to focus on "naming and shaming".

"If we name the right-wing or left-wing political parties - and we know that in all member states we have that sort of populist parties, anti-vaxx parties receiving different financial sources from outside - and we name a few of them, then what about the rest?" she asked.

There is also discussion about which countries to name in the report. The majority of MEPs are likely to go for categorising the threats.

"The lion's share of all disinformation comes from Russia and China. […] Then there are countries with growing assertiveness in disinformation," Kalniete said, adding that these countries don't have a global approach, but only focus on issues that are important to their national interest.

She also mentioned Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, Indonesia - highlighting that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia also aim to enlarge their influence in the Western Balkans.

Kalniete said discussions are also focussed around what more to do about digital platforms, a key tool for spreading disinformation.

The commission has set out a code of conduct, which is voluntary.

"Over 90 percent of platforms percent signed it, but they are not following the voluntary obligations what they agreed, we insist it must be mandatory," Kalniete added.

When asked about the Pegasus spy programme that was used to put journalists and activists under surveillance, including by the Hungarian government to spy on reporters, Kalniete suggested that there needs to be legislation which makes the software producers responsible for misuse.

"Not only those who are using it, but also those who are producing it, they have to be responsible for what need the programme is acquired for," Kalniete added.

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