Countering disinformation is a long-term issue and there are no quick fixes, said the outgoing Ambassador of the UK in Montenegro for the DFC Magazine. She assessed that the best way to fight such phenomenon is through transparency, accountability and good governance.

Ambassador Alison Kemp will end her mandate in Montenegro at the end of August. In her farewell interview for the Montenegrin media while commenting the attempts of Russian interference in the elections around the world, including the UK and Montenegro, said that her country would always respond to attempts to interfere in democratic processes.

As she explained, the UK is clear that the 2016 attempted coup in Montenegro was part of a wider pattern of Russian behaviour, since Kremlin persistently seeks to undermine the security of the allies around the world.

Speaking of the upcoming Parliamentary elections, Kemp said she regretted the fact that not all of the suggestions of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) had been fully addressed through the Parliament procedure, but ultimately she thinks that the validity of the elections depends primarily on good will, faith and trust of all the political actors and the general public.

Disinformation – a weapon to undermine and destabilise society

Are you familiar with the work of the Digital Forensic Center? To what extent is the work of such an organization, which is fighting against disinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories significant for the society?

  Alison KEMP:  I’ve followed the work of the DFC with interest since its foundation, and I’m pleased that the Centre collaborates with a wide range of experts in tackling disinformation, including those based in the UK.  In a world where only 10% of the global population has access to free media, disinformation is often wielded as a weapon to undermine and destabilise society.  It has never been easier to publish and receive information, it has also never been easier to spread lies and conspiracy theories.

Disinformation affect public debate

Technological advances including the development of AI and of deep fakes, makes it all the more important that credible experts exist able to highlight and effectively deconstruct these dangers to the general public, who are aware of these trends, but tend to feel that disinformation is something that happens to other people.

We have seen disinformation used to influence the public debate and choices both in the UK and across the Western Balkans. The UK is at the forefront of efforts to fight such malign influence in the region, and in 2019 we announced a package of nearly £10 million over three years to counter disinformation and strengthen the independent media in the Western Balkans.

The UK has no quarrel with the Russian people

The British Intelligence and Security Committee’s report showed that Russia interfered with many elections in the United Kingdom, including the Brexit referendum, the 2019 general elections, as well as the Scottish independence referendum. Why is Britain one of the main Russian targets, as stated in the report?

Alison KEMP: On the seventieth anniversary of the founding of NATO, its leaders met in London on 3-4 December 2019 and agreed that the Kremlin’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security.  Russia’s pattern of aggression and destabilising behaviour undermines its claim to be a responsible international partner.

The UK has no quarrel with the Russian people, indeed the UK and Russia’s historic ties, including as Allies in the Second World War means our relationship can and should be better. But that relationship must be based on mutual respect and a commitment to the Rules Based International System. The Russian government doesn’t like that the UK holds up a mirror to its reckless and illegal behaviour wherever it occurs.

Russia doesn’t like when we hold up a mirror to its illegal behaviour

The UK has called the Russia government out where it has crossed that line, including in the attempts to interfere with the 2016 Montenegrin election, malicious cyber activity, and the use of a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury which put the lives of tens of thousands of people at risk and resulted in the tragic death of a British mother, Dawn Sturgess and was a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

I should note that the Intelligence Select Committee report is an independent parliamentary report, rather than a government report or a statement of British government policy. The British government has responded that we have seen no evidence of successful interference in the 2014 Scottish referendum nor the 2016 EU referendum based on available information and intelligence assessments. However, the British Government has concluded that it is almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019 UK General Election through the online amplification of illicitly acquired and leaked Government documents.

We have robust systems in place to protect the UK against foreign malign influence. These bring together government, civil society and private sector organisations to monitor and respond to interference, to ensure our democracy stays open, transparent and resilient. During the 2019 General Election a cross-Government election security cell coordinated responses to threats and hazards relating to the election.

The 2016 attempted coup in Montenegro part of a wider pattern of Russian behaviour

As an example of elections interference, the Committee is providing an attempted coup during the 2016 Parliamentary elections in Montenegro, prior to NATO accession. Do you think that our country, ahead of the elections, is more resilient to such interference, or are you expecting more attempts of Russian interference?

Alison KEMP: Interference in any democracy is an international issue. And the UK will respond to any attempts to interfere in democratic processes, alongside NATO, the EU and our international partners.  

Kemp: The UK is aware of the holding of elections in the current circumstances

The UK is clear that the 2016 Russian-backed attempted coup in Montenegro was part of a wider pattern of Russian behaviour that persistently seeks to undermine our security and that of our allies around the world. And as a result, the UK increased our support and I’m pleased with the breadth of our co-operation, and the way in which Montenegro is working with the UK and other NATO allies to build its resilience across a range of national security issues. This work continues.

The UK is conscious of the challenges involved in holding elections under the current conditions, and that is one of the reasons why we support election observation by local and international organisations, including ODIHR, and why we are funding a range of local NGOs to monitor media and political financing in the run up to the elections and build a understanding in key electoral processes.

In the end, however, the best way to fight malicious interference and disinformation is through transparency, accountability and good governance, all core values which Montenegro shares with its NATO allies and the EU.

Objectivity and an ethical approach should be at the heart of responsible journalism

Last couple of months we faced a yet unseen flood of disinformation, launched by the Belgrade-based media and, as the DFC found, strictly ordered by Russia. Having that in mind, as well as the upcoming elections, what is there for our society and country to do to be more ready to respond to hybrid threats that, as we can see, more developed countries than Montenegro are exposed to?

Alison KEMP: Countering disinformation is a long-term issue and there are no quick fixes.  It will take consistent and patient effort, with the focus adapting as society’s interests and technology change, for example the way in which misinformation and disinformation about COVID19 is being used to undermine public trust.

I’d suggest a three-fold approach, starting with supporting a trusted, sustainable, responsible and high quality media, which reflects and represents citizens.  Objectivity and an ethical approach should be at the heart of responsible journalism.  As the famous British newspaper editor C.P. Scott said, “comment is free but facts are sacred.”

It is not the job of the media alone to tackle disinformation

But it is not the job of the embattled media alone to tackle disinformation.  The young entrepreneurs who first established the companies which dominate social media famously “moved fast and broke things”.  But they now recognise that they need to balance freedom of expression with responsibility. We must have profound conversations with tech platforms whose space is used and abused by disinformation and misinformation.  We are at the start of a journey through an evolving landscape.  Montenegro’s NATO membership means it can share other allies experience of these conversations.

And a third part of the solution lies in education. Our schools and our curriculum have a valuable role to play, so young people grow up with the skills to tell fact from fiction, and think critically about the information they consume online. That is why I am so pleased that British Council and Montenegrin Government’s s 21st Century Skills and 21st Century Teachers programmes will train every primary school teacher in the country to bring innovative teaching focusing on problem solving, critical thinking and coding skills to their schools.

Technology will not slow down, it will only get faster and smarter. We must respond in a way which is consistent with our democratic values.

Questioning the way things have been done is one of democracy’s most valuable tenets

Many times have you called on all parties to find a common solution regarding the reform of electoral legislation. However, the consensus was not reached in the end. In that perspective and taking into account the processions that marked the year, how would you assess the atmosphere around elections in Montenegro?

Alison KEMP: Every election is a challenge to the way things have been done during the previous mandate and an opportunity to offer new approaches. This is not inherent fault in democracy but rather one of democracy’s most valuable and treasured tenets. Since in a democracy voters are offered a choice, the election process is always competitive, sometimes more sometimes less so. It is not unusual for elements of the society that have a vested interest in the outcome of the election to want to have their voice heard during the election campaign. As long as the political competition remains within the boundaries of the law, contested political campaigns are what democracy is about.

Boycotts stymy democracy

Significant steps have already been made in the electoral legislation in Montenegro before the 2016 national elections. The ODIHR observation mission report after that election highlighted further important recommendations that should have been implemented. I regret the fact that not all these suggestions have been fully addressed through the Parliament procedure, but ultimately the validity of the elections depends primarily on good will, faith and trust of all the political actors and the general public. I am confident that with a full and committed implementation of the existing legislation by all institutions and political parties a good outcome can be achieved.

Our word “parliament” derives from the French verb to talk, your word “skupstina” derives from the verb to gather.  Your representatives are entrusted with citizens votes to gather together, hold the government to account and represent their interests.  Boycotts do not help achieve this, they stymy democracy and inhibit those reform processes that political parties say they want to support. I hope that all MPs who win the public vote at the end of the month will participate in the next parliament.

At the heart of Montenegro’s accession journey is the reforms

Even though Great Britain left the European Union, its officials have stated many times that it is very important for Montenegro to continue its European path. To what extent does the advancement in that process depend on us alone and to what extent on the balance of power inside the Union, because the Member States do not have the same attitude on the enlargement process, particularly after Brexit?

Alison KEMP: The UK wants a strong, stable and prosperous neighbourhood.  We remain of the view that the EU accession process is important to delivering security, stability and prosperity in the entire Western Balkans region.  At the heart of Montenegro’s accession journey is the reforms that must be undertaken to demonstrate effective and sustained commitment to the values shared by all EU members states.   Dialogue with the Commission and member states on these reforms will be an important demonstration of Montenegro’s engagement with the accession process.

Now the hard work of closing the chapters must begin

In the three years I have been in Montenegro, the EU has underlined its commitment not just to Montenegro, but to the entire region through a series of Presidencies who concentrated on your region; a new Enlargement package by the Commission in 2018; and new methodology which unlocked the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in 2020. And now most recently with the extension of the Green Deal and COVID response measures and assistance to Montenegro and the region.

Supporting Montenegro’s continuation of the EU accession process

I’m pleased that Montenegro has now opened all chapters of acquis, but now the hard work of closing them must begin. The UK is proud to continuing supporting Montenegro’s commitment to the accession process, and in meeting the necessary requirements.

DFC: Now, at the end of your mandate in Montenegro, what do you see as the greatest advantage and disadvantage of our society?

Alison KEMP: Your advantages are you size and the resilient spirit of your people, which I think was typified by the documentary I made on Operation Brezna of 1944.  Montenegro’s resilience has been strained recently, but CV19 has also brought out the best in people in terms of supporting those more vulnerable than themselves.

Montenegro has so much going for it

Throughout my time here I have been concerned by the discriminatory rhetoric and invective that sometimes features in your political life, including the use of ethnic, sexist and homophobic slurs. And this is something I’ve been particularly conscious of in the last year, including in the public discourse over the law on religion and COVID. Diversity is a shared European and NATO value, and in this regard the UK will continue to support dialogue and an inclusive approach to policy making and the full and fair exercise of the rule of law.

As is everyone in Montenegro, I’m apprehensive of the economic impact of coronavirus.  Montenegro has so much going for it:  one of the most beautiful and dramatic landscapes most visitors have ever seen, wonderful agriculture products, resourceful and talented people.  I am encouraged that the recent package of economic measures seeks to balance Montenegro’s core sectors – tourism and agriculture, with emerging areas of economic growth. I will continue to follow Montenegro’s progress from afar.