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The Power of the Press: Media’s Role in Democracy
Episode 15th August 2021 • Democracy! The Podcast • CEPPS Advisor Adrienne Ross, Fmr Deputy Asst Secretary Strategic Communications, US Dept of State, Journalist
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"[T]he media is the first line of attack in really chipping away and undermining democracy.” Rosarie Tucci, USAID Director, Democracy, Rights & Governance Center 

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As the rise of corruption, authoritarian power, and nefarious interference takes hold in many countries, the power of the press has been challenged throughout the globe.  In this episode of Democracy! The Podcast, we’ll examine the role media plays in sustaining a free and independent society, and why the bad guys always take the first aim at the press corps.  

First, we travel to Kosovo to hear what our CEPPS consortium partners, Nancy Soderberg and Pajtim Gashi from the National Democratic Institute, are doing to counter disinformation and misogyny.  

Then, Jeanne Bourgault, President and CEO of Internews, a CEPPS partner who trains independent journalists and digital rights activists, shares what journalists deal with in a compromised information space.   

 

Finally, we have a candid conversation with USAID Director of the Democracy, Rights, and Governance Center Rosarie Tucci about media sustainability and what the future holds. 

  

Democracy! The Podcast is brought to you by the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS) with support from the United States Agency for International Development through the Global Elections and Political Transitions Award.  

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Follow CEPPS on Twitter

Democracy! The Podcast is hosted by CEPPS and Adrienne Ross. 

This podcast has been produced by the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening through the Global Elections and Political Transitions award and is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development.

Opinions expressed here are those of the host and the guests and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, or the US Government.  This show is produced by Evo Terra and Simpler Media.

Transcripts

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Hi, and welcome to Democracy!

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The Podcast that shines light on some of the darkest challenges facing the

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fight for democracy around the globe.

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"Democracy will and must prevail."

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[President Biden]

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This podcast is brought to you by the Consortium for Elections and

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Political Process Strengthening direct from Washington, DC, with support

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from our friends at the United States Agency for International Development

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through the Global Elections and Political Transitions Award.

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I'm your host, Adrienne Ross.

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Today we're talking about the role of media in democracy.

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We'll hear what it's like to be an independent journalist and talk with

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the director of USAID's Democracy Rights and Governance Center.

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But first, let's head to the Balkans to get a closer look at the

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media landscape in Kosovo from our communications officer, Amy Radlinski.

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In 1999, the United States and its European allies went

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to war to protect Kosovo.

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Ever since then, the U.S.

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Government has remained heavily invested in the nation.

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In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence, a move Serbia,

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backed by Russia, called illegal.

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Today, the work to consolidate a vibrant democracy faces many challenges.

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For instance, a lack of integration continues with

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Serbia and the European Union.

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Plus, a huge chunk of Kosovo's population is very young and super wired, creating

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a lot of open access to media throughout the country and making its citizens

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particularly susceptible to false stories.

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Misinformation spreads like wildfire, fueling a massive

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lack of trust in the media.

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In fact, during Kosovo's February 14th snap elections for parliament, CEPPS

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Media Monitoring, thanks to funding from USAID, tracked manipulated data,

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fake cures for the Coronavirus, and stories that encouraged ethnic divisions.

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It was a landslide victory for Prime Minister Albin Kurti and his party.

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But given Kosovo's digital landscape, how did media-based disinformation

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play a role in the election?

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And does media have a bigger responsibility to ensure the

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integration of democracy in general?

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Thanks Amy.

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Today, we're joined by a few special guests to talk about

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media's role in democracy.

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First, Ambassador Nancy Soderberg is the National Democratic Institute's

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Resident Senior Director for Kosovo.

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She has dedicated her career to advancing democracy all over the

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world, notably serving at the White House and as a congressional staffer,

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and even a candidate for U.S.

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Congress.

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Ambassador Soderbergh knows a bit about breaking glass ceilings.

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In 1995, President Clinton appointed her to be the first woman Deputy National

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Security Advisor, and later, the Alternate Representative for the U.S.

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to the UN with the rank of Ambassador.

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In those roles, Ambassador Soderbergh was integrally involved in the Clinton

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administration's policies towards Kosovo.

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Her colleague, Pajtim Goshi, is also joining us today.

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Pajtim is NDI's Senior Program Manager.

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He has examined a variety of election specialties for more than

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ten years, particularly focusing on media and digital democracy.

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Interestingly, Pajtim is also a native of Pristina, Kosovo's

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capital and largest city.

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We are so happy you are here today.

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Thank you so much.

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Let's talk a little bit about the February 14th snap elections in Kosovo.

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Can you describe what you saw happening between the media and the candidates

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during the lead-up to the elections?

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Absolutely.

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And first of all, thank you so much for the invitation

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to join you for this podcast.

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And I want to thank CEPPS and, of course, USAID for their generous

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support of our program, which makes our presence here in Kosovo [possible].

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The February elections were snap elections after the government unexpectedly

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fell because of a court ruling.

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And so the society really didn't have a lot of time to

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get ready for this election.

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So it was intense, political tensions were high.

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We had the leaders go to The Hague.

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It was the second election in the last two years.

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And you had a real threat from information disorders.

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The politicians were hurling insults at each other.

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We had Russia promoting various narratives.

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And here in Kosovo, it's a divided society with the Serbs minority

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population and the majority Albanian, less and less integrated.

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And what we found is that there was widespread information, exaggerated

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information, harmful information.

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Overall, the reporting was fairly accurate, but the media did play

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a role in spreading information disorders without putting information

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in the right context or calling out when it was a blatant interference.

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So, citizens are aware of the disinformation, but they

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still kind of believe it.

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And misogyny was very present against the candidates, among

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candidates, and in the media as well.

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So it was very intense - judged free and fair.

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And we had a historic win by one party taking really the majority for

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the first time in Kosovo's history since its independence in 2008, which

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may augur a period of stability.

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But it's Kosovo, so anything can happen.

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Can you talk a little bit more about the misogyny that you saw?

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Could you give us some, maybe some specific examples of the

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kind of disinformation you saw?

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And why do you think people were so inclined to believe those?

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Well, I think on why they're inclined to believe it, I think that

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Kosovo's ripe for disinformation because it still doesn't have final

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agreement recognition with Serbia.

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It's still not into the EU.

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Visa liberalization hasn't happened.

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And so it's still a very kind of new country that's still finding its way in

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the neighborhood as well as in the region.

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And what you see in the misogyny here, it's a very patriarchal society.

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The 1999 war is still very present here.

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So you have a lot of wounds from the past, but it's a largely patriarchal society.

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So, politicians, both men and women, were attacked in the media.

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But women were subject to blatant misogyny, talking about what they

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eat, what they wear, talking about how they're dressing, failing to

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report the substantive interactions with issues and with voters.

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And the media has to really call itself out for how they portray women.

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And, of course, women insult other women, too.

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So it's a very tough place for women here to be in politics.

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There is a quota, and there was a record number of women elected to

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this parliament on February 14th.

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The first time ever two deputy prime ministers, the second time

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we have a woman as president.

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And so we're making huge progress, but there's still a lot of work to do.

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Can you talk about what kind of reactions you've heard or what

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Kosovars think when they talk about media-based disinformation?

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Do they recognize it as that?

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Well, access to the internet in Kosovo is among the highest in Europe, and has

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increased significantly in the recent years, which at the same time it's

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making our country, I would say, very vulnerable towards information disorders.

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So Kosovar citizens are aware of information disorders, but they

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still affect public opinion.

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So 74% of citizens believe portals regularly, or occasionally

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report information disorders.

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Also, up to 30% do not discern some narratives as false or distorted.

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And the public opinion research shows that 32% of citizens believe that portals

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regularly report false information stories with another 29% believing that

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disinformation is shared on social media.

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42% believe that this phenomenon happens occasionally, and, according

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to the research, 38% believe that this happens for financial reasons, and 17%

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believe that this reporting is done on purpose to push a certain agenda.

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When we were trying to understand why this phenomenon is happening,

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and we asked the citizens.

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So despite this awareness, false narratives had an impact on the public

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opinions of Kosovo citizens, I would say.

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And for instance, narratives of spreading disinformation on COVID-19 were believed

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by 18-39% of the population, while 22% believed some of the most inflammatory

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statements promoting political division.

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Those are some numbers.

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Nancy, how do we think that this media-based disinformation

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affects the political landscape?

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It directly contributes to political division, political turmoil.

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What you see is attacks being hurled at each other among politicians using

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false and biased information against them, which is then simply repeated.

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In this most recent election in February, we saw new Facebook groups and fan pages

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emerging that themselves were spreading disinformation, blatantly spreading false

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accusations and charges, information.

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The largest political parties targeted each other with

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harmful information as well.

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And what you see is half-truths, which are, in our polling, eroding

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confidence in democracy and essentially frustrating people.

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The age group that's most susceptible to these narratives

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is eighteen to twenty-four.

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So, I think that society has a lot of work to do in making sure that people

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are aware of the misinformation out there, that they know how to do their own

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fact-checking, and that politicians stop spreading outwardly false information.

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And the media needs to do a better job of identifying

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disinformation when it is just that.

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Absolutely.

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And I understand that you've all been sharing your findings

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directly with journalists.

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How has that been going?

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We've had a really robust program of monitoring the information

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media environment here for a year, and have engaged with NGOs, the

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journalists, really have a fantastic partnership, which actually Pajtim

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runs, so I'll turn it to Pajtim.

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Yes.

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So we believe that the media and journalists have a key role in combating

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information disorders here in Kosovo.

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So we have; I have established a very good partnership with consolidated media

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in Kosovo, and also journalists as well.

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And it's worth mentioning the cooperation with the association of

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journalists in Kosovo, especially.

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So we have organized thematic workshops with journalists, such as

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disinformation during electoral processes.

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Or the role of journalists in political communications, where

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NDI's media monitoring findings were presented as well as best

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practices in combating disinformation.

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And all these data were shared and discussed with different

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stakeholders and participants.

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Moreover, NDI has been able to organize the second edition of

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information integrity conference, which is called DISICON.

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And that was organized just recently in June for two days.

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And under the overarching theme of the rise of disinformation

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in digital democracy.

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This conference offered detailed information on the overall information

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environment in Kosovo, a global, European, regional, and local perspective

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on information integrity disorders, challenges, as well as best practices

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on how to combat this phenomenon.

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During these two days, the conference has created the opportunity to bring together

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different local international field experts in media literacy and experts from

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different media industries, social media, journalism, or regulatory bodies, academy,

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our political parties and civil society actors to discuss all these phenomenons.

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It sounds fantastic.

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It's really dynamic and helpful, I would imagine, to those journalists.

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What can be done about this violence against women?

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Nancy, in particular, it sounds like it was very scary and very

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personal for these candidates.

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Very personal.

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The now president Vjosa Osmani was the subject of attacks against her

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looks, her appearance, her husband.

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And women in general are attacked, but the head of the central election

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commission was also subject to really harsh attacks as well.

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What we've seen is that as women step into these leadership positions,

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they are increasingly subject of attacks, which serves as a deterrent

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for any woman to get into politics.

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So it's really a huge challenge for the society.

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We need to, really, get the whole society to recognize that this is a problem and

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identify it as misogyny and call it out.

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I think the media has a real role in trying to make sure that they

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have fair and just representation.

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For instance, when you're in a debate, make sure that the women

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are fully represented in the debates during prime time, not off on the

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time when no one's watching it.

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We should not have what they call "manels," which is all-men panels.

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You want to make sure that women are fully integrated and equally represented.

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I think you just have to have a different approach on publications and doing this.

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We have a number of programs on this front, and I'll ask Pajtim to

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talk about some of the programming that NDI is actually doing to push

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women into leadership positions.

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Yeah, we at NDI have observed online hate speech and targeted disinformation

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campaigns attacking woman candidates and other vulnerable groups in society.

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This was also presented from the findings of our media monitoring

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of 2019 election campaign.

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And we have seen that violence against women in politics, which includes online

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violence, bullying, and harassment can discourage women a lot from taking

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the roles in political leadership.

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So in response to that, we have launched advanced Women's Leadership

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Academy, digital skills for women focused on combating these issues

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through digital campaigns and through different advocacy campaigns as well.

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And this was organized in an intensive eight-week course during May and June.

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So during the pandemic.

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It was a very challenging time, but we managed to virtually deliver

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this great training for women from different political parties.

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And on the issue of gender, I would encourage your audience and listeners

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to have a look at our gender assessment report that's on NDI's website.

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We just published it.

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It's a very lengthy study with world-renowned experts.

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And that's kind of a roadmap of what parties, civil society, government,

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and the citizens of Kosovo can do to support women in politics.

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And it's got a series of great findings and recommendations

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that I would recommend to you.

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Absolutely.

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In fact, we'll have that as well on the cepps.org/podcast website as well.

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So listeners are able to check it out both at NDI and the cepps.org page.

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Thank you.

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Absolutely.

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What do you think the future of Kosovo's media holds in

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regards to electoral reporting?

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We've seen the same thing happen globally.

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It's not just unique to Kosovo.

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But in this country, what do you think will happen?

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Well, Kosovo's on the cutting edge of much of this.

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It's in the Balkan region and still has tensions with Serbia.

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We've still got Russia and China competing for influence.

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So it's really a testing ground for what the world is undergoing.

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And it can help test solutions as well.

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And so what we're recommending is that you really have to have a strategy to

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prevent disinformation and reduce the challenges that it presents to democracy.

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Make no mistake about it, these kinds of disinformation campaigns do

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threaten fragile democracies across the globe, not just here in Kosovo.

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Thank you, Pajtim and Ambassador Soderbergh.

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Now, to help us gain a better understanding of what it's like

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to be a journalist in places like Kosovo, we're joined today by an

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internationally respected voice on independent journalism, President and

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CEO of Internews Jeanne Bourgault.

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Jeanne has spent a tremendous amount of her career in places

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where dramatic shifts in media and political landscapes were taking shape.

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It's important to explain that Internews is not a news organization per se.

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Internews trains journalists, digital right activists,

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and tackles disinformation.

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Internews is also a partner of the CEPPS Consortium, and these organizations

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work together with funding from USAID to strengthen independent

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journalism all over the world.

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Thank you so much for joining us today, Jeanne.

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Can you talk a little bit about what it means to be an independent journalist

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in somewhere like Kosovo or Tunisia?

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What's the job like and what are some of the risks that these journalists take?

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Journalists all around the world are facing increased security risks,

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either from government or criminal intimidation, over the stories they

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cover and how they're covering it.

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This can range from harassment to jailing to actual violence

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against them or their families.

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Every day, a journalist in a country like this wakes up with a mental

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equation about what can I do and not do to protect myself and my family?

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That can lead to self-censorship in order for them to be able to

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tell another story another day.

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They also face a lot of competition in the information landscape.

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There's a lot of outside influences.

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Authoritarian regimes are trying to control the narrative in their countries.

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This is really big in the Balkans, certainly.

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But external voices that are trying to control that local narrative, but they're

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also facing inside massive disinformation campaigns and all sorts of the clouds, the

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whole information landscape from social media and internet and ignorant sources.

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Third, they face really serious economic challenges.

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Their personal financial situation is a challenge.

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The market collapse of the news industry has led to massive

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layoffs, has led to salary cuts.

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And so working in such a difficult job on top of these other

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challenges is just showing you what journalists are dealing with.

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And finally, now these days there's COVID.

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And so it carries a double challenge.

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One, they're covering a very complicated and changing story, at the same time

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they are physically putting themselves in danger as they cover it because

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they're reporting during a pandemic.

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So in truth, journalists in these countries, in Kosovo and Tunisia,

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and all over the world are in one of the toughest, most dangerous

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professions in the world today.

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And so, this might be an obvious question, but why do these

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journalists keep doing this job?

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Well, I think they're passionate about their mission as the role of journalists.

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And this sort of gets into a little bit about the role of journalism

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in a democracy, which I know we wanted to talk about as well.

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They are the ones who bring the relevant, actionable news

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that their communities need.

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Whether it's education, elections, public health, the local business environment,

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they're the ones who bring that.

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They're the ones who track government budgets to make and hold governments and

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businesses accountable for their promises.

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They really do believe that they're on a mission-driven assignment.

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And thankfully for that, cause not everybody would want to do this job.

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What impact do trusted journalists have on a democracy?

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Let me give you an example.

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Sorry I'm not focusing on the countries that we're focusing on,

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but in Liberia, we've run election programs there over several years,

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and in 2017, Harvard actually had a research team that conducted a random

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control trial, watching the media engagement for the 2017 election.

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We'd encouraged a series of radio stations to run political debates.

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Studies showed that those communities that enjoy this sort of repetitive

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political debates and the issues out there on a really regular basis participated

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significantly more than communities that didn't, and it really affected the vote.

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And so there's a very direct relationship that journalism has with a democracy.

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But we also just see more broadly, a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center

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showed that the most engaged citizens in any community are those who consume

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the most local news and information.

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And without news, voting rates drop, fewer people join civic organizations,

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and fewer people run for office.

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There's a lot of other studies that show that without solid

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local reporting, corruption rises.

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So it really is a public forum for discussion and investigation,

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and if it disappears, it really undermines a democracy at the

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community level in particular.

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One U.S.

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Leader who has kept a sharp eye on media's role in democracy is USAID

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Administrator, Samantha Power.

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Power recently made the point at the agency's Democracy, [Human]

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Rights and Governance conference earlier this year that the U.S.

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Needs to "rightsize" our investments to boost independent media.

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Here now to talk more about media sustainability is the Director

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of USAID's Democracy, [Human] Rights and Governance Center.

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Rosaire Tucci, or Ro as everyone knows her, has also served as the DRG Center's

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Deputy Director and Senior Advisor to the Deputy Administrator of USAID.

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Thank you for being here.

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Can you explain a little bit about why the administrator's focus on

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media is so important and what else USAID and its partners can do to aid

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independent media and reporters abroad?

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We think media serves several functions, and two in particular that I can mention.

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First, it serves as a platform to support public debate and discourse.

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Sometimes we refer to that as the modern day public square.

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So it's essentially, it's an important venue for pluralistic discussions

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that can help unpack solutions to some of the modern day major societal

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challenges we're facing, whether that's economic opportunity and inequality,

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climate change, a pandemic response.

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I mean, pick any one of the immense issues we're grappling with right now.

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And at an individual level it can serve as a platform for providing information

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to help citizens make decisions, everyday decisions about their lives.

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But second, it also, as many of us know, is critical to holding those

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in positions of power, whether political or economic, to account.

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It serves as that typical watchdog function.

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And in that way, it serves as a check on all branches of government.

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The example we often use is the power of investigative journalism to

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uncover corruption among government officials or within institutions.

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So overall, media is critical to developing a healthy information

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ecosystem, a tool that helps ensure that robust supply of accurate

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fact-based information is available to individuals and societies.

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Now, turning to your question about what is USAID doing about this?

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I think - armed with this knowledge and the values that we have, we're working

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to help our media professionals face a number of challenges that they're having.

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But the broader objectives are to secure financial sustainability

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of quality journalism.

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That's number one.

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And number two is to protect the independence of journalism and mitigate

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those subtle economic and political tactics that power interests use to

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capture or influence media coverage.

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One of the things we've looked at a lot in this episode is how explosive digital

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media has been in some of these countries, particularly Armenia, Kosovo, Tunisia.

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And so with the rise of digital and social media, we recently saw the

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Administrator make some comments that market dynamics and repressive governments

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want to control the narratives of independent media and many markets.

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And we've witnessed that.

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We're talking about that in this podcast.

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Some, though, are talking about an extinction event.

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Can you talk about what that means and why independent media extinction

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would be such a threat to democracy?

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We're seeing a crisis in the viability of media, and that's

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for a handful of reasons.

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In general, there's been a significant change in the information ecosystem.

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And I referenced that, the changes in consumption habits, how we are

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obtaining our information, where we're obtaining it, looks dramatically

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different than 20 years ago.

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That's really due to, I would say, a cocktail of issues that

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are happening right now that's become very dangerous, created

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challenges to democratic resilience.

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And so, some of the things that we're seeing is the collapse of the

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traditional media business model, with many independent media institutions

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confronting what is an acute market failure for a number of reasons,

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such as decreased ad revenue, much of which is being transferred online.

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Another dynamic that we're seeing is a rise of political influence on media.

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So that's not necessarily new, but political actors are becoming

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much more effective at it.

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In some of the most extreme cases, what we're seeing is being

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referred to as "media capture."

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A dynamic that enables political and financial elites to manipulate the media

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market by interfering in advertising and ownership models, weaponizing spending,

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and directing the media to those that give them more favorable coverage.

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Another evolution that we're seeing is these tactics are not only

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being used internally, but they're also increasingly being used to

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achieve broader geopolitical goals.

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For example, Beijing and the Kremlin are manipulating foreign information

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environments in a number of ways.

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They're funding overseas news outlets that spread propaganda and disinformation.

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They're paying to place their own content in local media.

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They may be trying to acquire content dissemination platforms, or

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even purchasing local advertising agencies to direct ad revenue.

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It's an overwhelming issue when we start to look at what

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the media is responsible for.

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And then the attacks, the disinformation, the malign influence that we see

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undermining the work that good journalists are doing every day.

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What's the best way for someone at home to support USAID and

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independent journalists abroad?

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We all play a role in maintaining and updating our own information

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literacy and applying good practices, and sharing reliable information.

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So that could mean checking our own news sources, ensuring we're

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sharing accurate data, practicing debunking, and discrediting stories.

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That could mean supporting our local media outlets and journalists

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to stay viable and active.

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As part of a larger organization, what we hope to see is more engagement

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in legal and policy-making advocacy.

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So we're really helping to shape the laws individually in our country and abroad.

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There could also be support for direct or tactical support, such as applying

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resources to counter large-scale messaging campaigns that spread disinformation.

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More broadly, I would say that we really need to look at sustainable approaches

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that work to bolster media sustainability.

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So solutions that address the resilience of these information ecosystems because

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we all know we can address the symptoms of the problem, but if we're really not

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getting at the underlying root causes, we won't be able to affect that long-term

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change that's really needed here.

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One of the other things that Ro pointed out during our conversation was

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governments that attack the media and spread false information are exceedingly

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successful at polarizing societies.

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One CEPPS partner, V-Dem, recently published a report that reveals

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all the dynamics and patterns of an autocrat's playbook.

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You can find a link to the V-Dem study at www.cepps.org/podcasts.

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Coming up on the next episode of Democracy!

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The Podcast, the Republic of Armenia, this ancient land today is a hotbed

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of political turbulence where two colliding forces ushered in new levels

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of malign influence and disinformation.

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We'll look at one program designed to help a government communicate.

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Plus, we'll talk with the President of the International Republican Institute,

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who shares some inspiring words on freedom and what's at stake in the world today.

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That's all ahead on our next episode of Democracy!

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The Podcast.

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This podcast has been produced by the Consortium for Elections and Political

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Process Strengthening through the Global Elections and Political Transitions

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Award, and is made possible by the generous support of the American

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people through the United States Agency for International Development.

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Opinions expressed here are those of the hosts and the guests,

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and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the U.S.

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Government, and is produced by Evo Terra and Simpler Media.

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For more information on Democracy!

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The Podcast, and to access the complete archives, please

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