Pros and cons of a national ombudsman dealing with falsehoods in the media


Propastop has written several articles on incidents where the media has reported falsehoods concerning Estonia and these biased statements have been neglected by the nation of Estonia. We have expressed a need for a national ombudsman dealing with overturning these falsehoods. The last incident where a lack of such an individual was problematic was the child welfare removal of Isabella from her family, where the Russian media claimed that there was persecution due to ethnicity.

Today we deal with a story that presents a different take on the roll of the state when dealing with overturning falsehoods. Former government strategic communication consultant, Ilmar Raag writes why he believes a national commissioner or ombudsman dealing with overturning falsehoods is not needed as well as how the nation should react to a info crisis situation. Since the term „national ombudsman“ has had a lot of response (for example last week Eesti Ekspress named it as the phrase of the week), we call upon our readers to give their opinion on the need for a national ombudsman dealing with falsehoods via the Propastop Facebook account.

A national propaganda ombudsman is not needed

Ilmar Raag

Propastop presented an analysis on child welfare and russophobia on 24.07.2017 where they used as an example the Isabella incident, which caused a storm in a teacup during the month of July.

The story’s main events are similar to events in Finland, USA or elsewhere in the world, where children’s welfare questions have become instruments to malign western child welfare policies as well as put down the ideology of the national apparatus. Even if the story’s analysis can be partially agreed with, the offered conclusion is still unfortunately distorted.

Following the reaction on the Estonian side, it is clear that we are missing a national ombudsman dealing with falsehoods, who could understand statements biased against the nation of Estonia and quickly disavow them. The given situation was such that it was just the officials who gave an overview commentary and only on the reasons for having handed the child over to childcare authorities. They did not respond to or overturn any of the propaganda like accusations or the media attacks on Estonia.

The so-called national ombudsman dealing with media falsehoods would be at the same time ineffective as well as duplicative. Ineffective because this type of official office would automatically be perceived as a commission with a one-sided agenda and the information given out would be greatly mistrusted by friend and foe alike. The duplication of this position is apparent in that this work basically would be the same work that is already being done by the public affairs and communication sections of various official offices.

The given incident was basically an attack, where the rationality and ethics of national decisions where in question. Classically the ones closest to the incident and consequently the ones with the most exact information would be responding, in this case the communication section of the Social Ministry. So maybe the question is that citizens should always understand how their interests are represented by the nation and consequently they must know the truth and correct information. This is the everyday task of public affairs. How well was the issue handled is an entirely separate question.

Recently I have had a feeling that in waving the term, propaganda we do not necessarily know what we are talking about and create a rather mysterious cloud. Every statement we do not like seems to be labeled with this term. Reality is generally more nuance based in given situations. Definitely this type of „little person“ story always has general public appeal, where the concerned individual is living out their own angst. This is not propaganda but an individual’s personal rage.

You find this also in stories concerning cultural heritage, where the question is dealing with one’s own identity and nobody is being targeted to be attacked by this. When Russians celebrate Maslenitsa (a religious and folk holiday) this is without question a promotion of how they see their own culture, consequently we cannot blame them for that anymore than the fact that we like to sing under an amphitheatre or have camp fires on St. John’s day.

I believe that we find interest in the pages of Propastop primarily on another level, where national and non-governmental organizations come under info conflict so to concretely undermine the undertaking of a social commitment in society. In an Isabella type scenario, there are two actual bottlenecks. Firstly understanding the crisis. This means that if there is not a reaction quick enough to allow required information to be available for everybody, then later it is very difficult to get the Genie back into the bottle.

Realistically this means understanding actual available manpower because in the situation of a real crisis, sending out a couple of press releases is not enough but simultaneous discussions with many different channels in many different ways must be put into effect. Some journalists require background information, some simply off-the-record ideas, others need interviews arranged etc. Secondly, the official administrations must immediately contact the individuals concerned directly. This means that usually in a crisis situation there is not enough communication individuals available in any of the official administrations because in 90% of the time there is no need for that many specialists.

Another bottleneck is something truly controversial. Namely existing info conflicts, where in everyday situations the nation should discreetly remain quiet. This means dealings with sensitive personal matters and individual privacy. Children welfare cases are definitely in this category. If the nation disclosed all the details of child abuse, it would jeopardize the well-being of her future. Even if the child is removed from her parents, does that mean that the parents should be publicly shamed by the government so as to make any possible reconciliation between the parents and their child even more difficult in the future.

The outcomes of these types of ethical barriers can be claimed by the representatives of protesting parents, that the state is causing injustice and being inhumane because the state is as if silencing or not adhering to the code of ethics.

In this type of conflict, there is no need for an ombudsman to deal with falsehoods but the Social Ministry must find the best solution among bad choices. If it is not discussed, then the whole social system suffers a loss of credibility – for example an accusation comes forth that „ Western child welfare policies are fascist“, and if the real situation is explained to rectify the accusation, the basic privacy rights of the suffering individual is compromised. In this digital age that cloud can remain with the individual forever. Without a doubt, this type of ethical dilemma has been a real treasure to malicious information soldiers and we have seen this as well in other western countries. In Finland, they have decided on always protecting the private rights of individuals.  As well, the social system communication individuals there have accepted the fact that they too can be the targets of foreign country info attacks.

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 Photo: Ilmar Raag / private collection.