“I’m in favor of the state fighting disinformation more vigorously, but on the other hand, such things need to be based on laws.” This is how Peter Bárdy, veteran journalist and editor-in-chief of Aktuality.sk, talks about the Slovak approach to countering disinformation. In an interview with Drbna, he also explained how the murder of his colleague Ján Kuciak changed the Slovak media’s approach to investigative journalism. After the tragic death of a young data journalist, this is part of the daily work of most major media outlets.
How did Slovakia handle the first three weeks of the onslaught of Ukrainian refugees fleeing war in their country?
It is necessary to look at it through the prism of an emergency. Unlike the Russian Federation, the western world could not prepare for war, so we had no tools to deal with the first waves of migration. Whether it was state aid to Ukraine or the management of the wave of migration, it was not quite one hundred percent from the start, and some things could be criticized. On the other hand, you have to realize that this was an extraordinary situation. Volunteers, NGOs and the general public reacted very quickly to the current events, creating a huge wave of solidarity which handled the situation in the first days in a wonderful way. To sum up, official state aid was minimal at the beginning, but everything is gradually becoming more refined.
Is such a strong wave of public solidarity sustainable in the long term?
I wish it was, but it probably won’t be sustainable in the long run. We experienced something similar in the spring of 2020, when we sewed sails and cheered on paramedics from windows and balconies. Three quarters of a year later, the first groups began to form, attacking scientists and experts who signaled the need for vaccinations. In this case, it turns out that solidarity does not have to last long.
The war also has a negative impact on life in Slovakia. This already proves that not all refugees from Ukraine are able to provide housing, so they survive in rather inhumane conditions. Of course, people notice and perceive that migration brings such things. Let’s not forget another important thing. The countries that were going through the wave of migration were the ones that cried the most in the case of the redistribution of refugees in 2015. We used to shout that we did not want quotas and now we may have to face quotas in Brussels for the redistribution of refugees. migrants from Ukraine who came to Slovakia. . This is why I fear that solidarity is not sustainable. This is, of course, aided by the mobilizing misinformation scene.
At the moment, Slovakia is doing its humanitarian maximum, or do you see any reservations?
He’s not doing his best by far. He stands and falls on volunteers. The fact that the aid works more or less is mainly due to the volunteers. The state will have to become more involved in the process. At the same time, it should establish cooperation with other countries. There is a need to design a process on how to continue working with incoming foreigners.
A missed opportunity for Slovakia
Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger did not take the opportunity to go to kyiv with his counterparts from European Union countries and thus express his support for Ukraine. Do you see this as a missed opportunity to show which side Slovakia is on?
This is a huge mistake. First, he could show that he is a politician behind Ukraine and ready to take all the risks. It could also have been a gesture to our country that he is simply a leader. Eduard Heger is always compared to Igor Matovic and is not considered an independent prime minister. On his way to Ukraine, he was able to show where he belonged, but he missed his chance. And as a result, he wasted a chance for Slovakia as well.
Not only him, but also Magda Vašáryová, who dwelled on the meaning and composition of the delegation in Ukraine, caused criticism on social networks. Do you understand his statement?
Magda Vašáryová is a long-time diplomat. Therefore, it is necessary to take his opinion from this point of view as well. As I mentioned, I personally have a different view of travel. If I were in the place of Prime Minister or President of Ukraine, it would be very useful for me to have the support of my European neighbors, who would give their opinion when they came.
Stop or warn louder?
Is Slovakia using all possibilities to fight disinformation? For example, the Czech internet association CZ.NIC, after consultation with state security forces and on the recommendation of the government, blocked eight Czech disinformation websites. What is the situation in Slovakia?
There is a slightly longer answer to this and the context requires the story. Even before 2014, we were logging the activities of various disinformation websites. At that time they were considered exotic, and at the same time those who read them were considered exotic. After the Russian military shot down a Malaysian Airlines plane over Ukraine and a massive disinformation campaign began, the disinformation scene began to take shape in Slovakia as well. At the same time, the number of supporters who sent such content, especially on social networks, also increased. Most of them were translated pro-Kremlin propaganda texts. At that time, the state needed to start creating a program that would help resist misinformation. The state simply fell asleep and did nothing against him for over seven years. Although he declared his interest in changing something, that was it. This came out at the time of covid, when conspiracy sites gained incredible power and managed to convince more than half of Slovaks not to get vaccinated, creating a huge anti-system movement that called for the government to be sacked. At that time, we started to do something, but it’s very complicated to put an end to the revolution when it has already started. To some extent, the war in Ukraine eased the domestic political situation in Slovakia. All the ruling parties have united and instead of fighting in an internal coalition, they speak in the same way and condemn the Russian aggression. As a result, it doesn’t create ammunition for conspiracy sites that haven’t known how to handle the situation since the start of the war, because they haven’t received any information from Russia. And as conspiracy sites began to receive propaganda from Russia, a law was passed that allowed the National Security Agency to block such outlets.
Do you think such an approach is acceptable? Should the role of the state be to decide what people read and what they don’t read?
I have now discussed it in the comments. I lack a legal definition of what dangerous disinformation is and what to refer to when disagreeing with blocking. This is very dangerous, especially in the context of public opinion. At first, people will applaud that we got rid of disinformation sites. But it may soon turn out that there was no legal reason to do so, and we’re just charging the disinformants and making them victims of a flawed system. I am in favor of the state fighting more vigorously against disinformation, but on the other hand, such things must be based on laws.
Shouldn’t conspiracy sites warn and refute misinformation rather than turn it off?
I am neither anarchist, nor punk, nor a supporter of an absolute deregulated market, nor even a supporter of strict regulation. I always try to find a way of compromise and logical justifications. If you’re not breaking the law, you shouldn’t be punished. It’s essential. They simply cannot be punished for feeling bad. This is a huge mistake. In context, I will return to a slightly different topic. The murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová is still relevant in Slovakia. The trial court convicted the killer and his assistant. However, he has not decided on the other two alleged clients. One can accept the judgment of the trial court that they are acquitted, but when you read a decision which was based on the wrong conclusions of the judges, you see that it is a mistake and that everything must be corrected. And now I return to the subject. When the state decides to shut down the media, it must give a clear decision and justify why it did so. If he is standing on “feet of clay”, that’s a problem.
Investing on the rise
You bit into the tragic death of Ján Kuciak and his partner. It was Ján Kuciak who devoted himself to the investigations. What conditions does the Slovak media currently have for investigative work? If I’m not mistaken, your medium was one of the pioneers of investigation in Slovakia.
It’s the way you say it. Until the murder that took place in 2018, we were the only media in Slovakia with a team of investigators. It was not common content at the time, as investigative work was always seen in Slovakia as expensive and having little impact. Coincidentally, we were able to set up such a team in 2015. The company that owned Aktuality was taken over by the German Axel Springer and the Swiss Ringier. This brought us to a publishing house with New Time, which was tabloid media. At that time, we kind of wanted to define the direction of Aktuality, so we showed that in the public interest, we have a media that will do an expensive investigation, which our publishing house can finance. The murder changed everything. Many media understood that this was the path they wanted to go and that it made sense. As a result, investigative journalism in Slovakia has taken on a whole new dimension and is now part of several publishing houses.
Ján Kuciak was a pioneer in data journalism, uncovering crime based on public sources. It was a style of journalism that hadn’t been common here until then. It’s comparable to when Jaroslav Kmenta discovered things about Babiš or Mrázek in the past. After similar bards in investigative journalism, a new generation has begun to emerge that is extremely skilled in working with data and records. From my perspective, it was a matrix full of numbers, behind which John always saw a story. After his assassination, there was a lot more talk about data journalism and open source. Through various trainings, similar work in other media has improved. We see an interesting trend where people in universities coming out of journalism are starting to do such work. After the murder of Ján, for example, a Slovak analyst from an Austrian group came to work for us. He was not a journalist, but he was good at searching databases and evaluating information. As a result, we began to realize how much journalism was changing. To some extent, such a person must be able to write. And if he’s not good at it, it’s much easier to learn to write than to look in the sources.