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Statement to the OSCE Conference on Media Freedom in Volatile Environments Closing Plenary

Statement delivered at the OSCE Conference on Media Freedom in Volatile Environments Closing Plenary, June 20, 2017, Vienna, Austria.

My name is Nina Jankowicz and for the past ten months I have served as a Fulbright Clinton Public Policy Fellow in Ukraine, where I have been researching Russian disinformation.

In my research, when I describe the crisis that has erupted over the past several years, I prefer to use the term disinformation, rather than fake news, information war, propaganda, or any of the other terms we have heard over the past two days.

Why? Because disinformation does not just encompass fake news stories, doctored photographs, or coordinated social media campaigns. It is any activity that aims to sow doubt, distrust, and discontent.

With this in mind, let me say aloud something I hope many of us have been thinking: much of the commentary we have heard over the past two days is part of Russia’s robust and long-running disinformation campaign.

Participants have gathered here in Vienna in hope of a dialogue about issues that ought to be universally important to everyone here.

But representatives of Russian government, and so-called independent media and civil society have saturated discussion with eloquently prepared statements that question the very purpose of this conference.

There is no crisis of media freedom in Crimea, they tell us. Russia has not targeted journalists for their work exposing the Kremlin’s destructive behavior. And “fake news?” Our colleagues from Russia are not sure it exists, and think we need to define it more concretely before we talk about solving the problem.

Well, if there is no crisis of media — or any other — freedoms in Crimea, why then, does the Russian Federation block international organizations, including the very body that organized this conference, from mounting an international monitoring mission to the peninsula?

If journalists are not targeted, why do they keep disappearing?

And as for a definition of fake news, I can tell you from personal experience that I’ve read countless definitions of the problem over the course of my research. They all coalesce around one idea: Russia is behind much of the fake news campaigning we have witnessed over the past several years.

So perhaps the problem isn’t that we lack a definition, but that Russia finds the agreed-upon definition inconvenient.

I hope that, leaving here today, participants have not let this disinformation-saturated debate change their commitment to combating disinformation, both in their home countries and in the OSCE region at large.

The Wiczipedia Podcast: Trump, Eastern Europe, and Immigrants

Wiczipedia Podcast

I’m happy to share the first episode of The Wiczipedia Podcast, a monthly deep dive into the issues of Eastern Europe meant to accompany the fun you’re already getting in the form of my weekly newsletter.

This month I’m joined by journalists Ilya Lozovsky and Lili Bayer, and we’re discussing the impact of the Trump administration’s Muslim ban on us as American immigrants and the things about Trump that worry us as people who have studied post-communist autocracies.

If you’d like to add the podcast to your favorite podcast app, the RSS feed is here, or you can stream it below. Thanks for listening!

 

 

Who cares about Sikorski’s Crude Analogies?

This weekend, recordings of Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski’s private conversations with former finance minister Jacek Rostowski surfaced in Wprost, a Polish weekly. The big bomb for Sikorski, who has been heralded as one of the brokers of what little stability exists in Ukraine, was that he questioned the Polish-American alliance, comparing Polish kowtowing to the US’s every whim to oral sex.

Yikes.

Enter an explosion of racy clickbait on Twitter and a couple of fierce arguments about the journalistic integrity of publishing such recordings and whether politicians should be judged for their private statements, all of which is very interesting, but besides the point. Because Sikorski is right.

Poland has done the United States a whole bunch of favors, and I don’t mean that it threw President Obama a nice party when he visited Warsaw at the beginning of the month. I mean grandiose gestures. Usually ones that involve people, money, planes, and weapons.

In an attempt to comply with NATO regulations Poland spends a higher percentage of its GDP on its military than many of its much richer neighbors–ironically, many of whom are considered more staunch allies to the United States than Poland itself. (Germany, we’re looking at you.) And it is one of the few countries in Europe increasing its defense expenditures. 

Poland was also one of the first countries to commit troops to the Iraq War. Politics aside, you have to appreciate this gesture. Poland cared enough about relations with the United States to send its army into harm’s way in a war based on spurious reasoning.  And they did a damn good job of it. Of the four zones of control in the country post-invasion, two were under US control, one British, and one Polish.

Oh, and there was also that secret CIA prison in Poland where the US hid purported terrorists from the prying eyes of, well, everyone. Poland is facing a case at the European Court of Human Rights for that particular love letter to its American brothers.

What has Poland gotten in return for its commitment to the Atlantic alliance and the United States? Very little. The ballistic missile shield that was planned (and cancelled, and reinstated) since the Bush administration might eventually come to fruition, particularly if Russia continues raising its hackles. Poles can’t easily work in or visit the US, since it is still waiting for admission to the visa waiver program (it’s the only member of the Schengen Zone without visa free entry to the US).

Given this background, it’s understandable why Sikorski might have expressed his frustration with the US when he saw the writing on the wall and we refused to take decisive action against Russia prior to the annexation of Crimea. His words aren’t the shocking part. How they came to light–almost certainly thanks to a certain neighbor hellbent on keeping Sikorski from succeeding Catherine Ashton as EU foreign policy chief–is another story.

Guide for Journalists Covering the Sochi Olympics

Since The Washington Post ran a slideshow of “shocking” photos of Olympic unpreparedness in Sochi early this week, I’ve been increasingly grumpy. Western reporters landed in Russia’s little slice of paradise on the Black Sea and immediately began complaining about everything around them. Some of their anecdotes and observations were funny- I couldn’t help but smile at poor translations on menus around town, which I myself enjoyed while cavorting around Russia- but others just seemed like they were coming from inexperienced travelers with little knowledge of Russia. …That, or whiny teenagers.

And then the tweets and reports kept coming. Facebook friends who likely cannot find the Black Sea on a map were suddenly experts on Sochi’s construction mismanagement. Others sent me their extremely original discoveries as if to say, “Finally, I have something to talk to you about! Also, you studied this craphole?! Joke’s on  you!”

I, along with many other Russophiles, have reached my breaking point.

In order to help journalists enjoy the rest of their time in Sochi and enjoy successful interactions with other non-Western countries and cultures in the future, I have created a handy guide based on the most common complaints I read from journalists:

  1. Can’t use the tap water in your hotel room? WELCOME TO MOST COUNTRIES THAT ARE NOT THE UNITED STATES. A lot of the pipes in Russia are pretty old and may have been in dubious shape even when installed during the Soviet era. You should not drink this water or put it near your face. Showering should be fine. On the bright side, you can practice your Russian at the kiosk down the street where you buy your bottled h2o. Protip: grocery stores have 5 gallon jugs. (I realized while I was typing you probably didn’t even try to pick up some basic Russian phrases. Sigh…)
  2. Is there a sign asking you to throw your toilet paper in the trash can, and not in the toilet? Again, pretty normal. See above re: pipes. They can’t handle the massive wads of Charmin Ultrasoft you like to use, let alone how much rough Russian toilet paper you’ll take to compensate. You should really just be thankful that you have “Western-style” toilets, because – gasp! – squat toilets exist in countries outside of the United States, including Russia.
  3. Awwww, your hotel bed’s a single bed? Are you feeling a little claustrophobic, or was your plan to bring a Russian hottie back to your room for some alone time suddenly foiled by reality? Every European hotel I’ve stayed in (except one) has had tiny, single beds. The construction of your hotel probably evicted a bunch of Sochi residents from their lifelong homes, so at least you have a roof over your head.
  4. If you are going to bash Russia, please do it for things it deserves. Maybe because you are against Russia’s treatment of gays, or because you worry about Sochi’s environmental implications. Don’t make fun of an entire country because you have no travel sense or moral standards.
  5. I’m sorry that you can’t easily dry your hair, take a hot shower, connect to the Internet, or use an elevator to get to your room. Consider for a second that perhaps the correct response is not “RUSHA SUCKZ!” but “Hmmm, seems like the IOC made an oops!”
  6. Most importantly, you are at the Olympics, an event that attempts to promote peace and cultural understanding through sport. Try to embody that sentiment, rather than supporting the reputation of “Ugly Americanism.”

I, for one, will treasure my memories of Sochi from my trip there, and I’m totally amped to watch the Opening Ceremonies tonight.