I recently attended a conference on fake news, disinformation and the impact it has on free media and as I sat at the back taking notes on my tablet, I heard my name mentioned by one of the speakers.
Of course, my case has become infamous in Albania and I am still battling the allegations that I work for Russia, purely because I gave comments to Russia Today on the anti-government protests. Hearing it mentioned is nothing new, but I have never publicly addressed the damage it did and continues to do.
I came to Albania by accident and have chosen to remain here and raise a family. It is my home and my life revolves around writing about the good and the bad things here with unwavering honesty and passion.
When I was six months into a high-risk pregnancy, prescribed restricted movement, and ‘staying calm’, a group of pro-government media portals published a number of articles making false statements about me. They also published disinformation in the form of twisting and manipulating publicly available information to suit their agenda with no consideration for the professional, personal, or physical consequences that it would have.
Then, the government, who I know was aware of the fake news stories, took away my resident permit and mercilessly went after my family.
Of course, I fought it, took the government to court, won, sued the portals that slandered me, and increased the critical reporting I do, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.
Now I am not here writing an article because I want or expect sympathy because believe me, we are way past that. There is no amount of kind words, empathetic looks, or even apologies that can take away the fear that the stress put on me could endanger my child, that the venom spouted could result in someone attacking me, or the knot of anxiety in my gut every time I see my name in print.
You cannot undo the fear I feel when I walk into an event and see cameras and eyes on me when I get tagged in something on social media, and it is hard to disguise the shaking in my voice when I speak in public and I can just hear the awful things that were said about me, repeated over and over in my mind.
Those things will not dissipate and believe me, there is no amount of sympathy that can change that. What I want to do is to draw attention to the damage that words and in particular, fake news can do.
When those ‘journalists’ sat behind their computers, received their orders, and pressed publish on those defamatory articles, I doubt they realised the real impact of what they were doing. To them, it was just a fake news story- something that would piss me off, embarrass me, and get them lots of clicks. I don’t think they realised the risk they were putting me and my child in, and the irreparable damage they have caused to our lives.
Once those words are published, you can never take them back and they are there, forever, digitally preserved, ready to rear their head and ruin their victim’s life again and again. If you Google my name, the false stories are some of the first things that come up about me and I deal with comments and accusations of this nature at least several times a week.
To clear my name, I have had to take a number of the portals that lied about me to court to get them to remove what they wrote and admit they were wrong- a battle I am not even halfway through. Today I have to sit and relive every moment of it to a psychologist who will then try to quantify to the court just how much pain they caused me. In a couple of weeks, I will have to attend court and listen to those portals’ lawyers argue that their words did no harm and that my pain and suffering is worth nothing.
When I win and they are ordered to remove the articles, it will be a small victory, but as I said, nothing can undo the damage that has been done or the dark days I lived because of their words when I was carrying my daughter.
Last week in England, 40-year-old television presenter Caroline Flack killed herself. A well-known celebrity, she had been in the public eye for years and had been ruthlessly attacked, gossiped about, and had fake news published about her on an almost daily basis.
Then, one day a domestic incident occurred between her and her partner in their home, the police were called, and charges were pressed against her even though her partner said she was not at fault.
The media ripped her to shreds. Every trashy portal ran headlines calling her “brutal”, an “abuser”, and other things that I refuse to repeat. Her reputation was ruined and such hatred was stirred up by this reporting that armies of trolls descended upon her social media accounts, calling her names and making threats. Then, on Valentine’s Day 2020, she took her own life and within 24 hours, most of the tabloids that vilified her, removed their hurtful and often defamatory articles.
Too little, too late.
When you publish a story, you need to remember that behind every headline, allegation and quote is a person with a family and a whole life that you know nothing about. Each word you right has the power to destroy everything they have ever worked for in an instant and can haunt them for years to come. When you press publish, you need to be sure of two things; is what you say true, and does the public really need to know this?
As journalists, we have a responsibility to inform the public but we are obligated to fact check, not lie, and to be honest in our reporting. If we make a mistake, as all humans do, we are also obliged to correct it publicly, learn from it, and do better next time.
But we journalists have another responsibility as well.
We have to consider the impact that our words will have on the person we are writing about. In a world where the media and social media wield unprecedented strength, we have a responsibility to ensure as much as we can that our words will not result in harm.
We cannot lie and whip up hate against someone we know is innocent, just because we do not like them. We cannot twist the truth and put people’s lives, health, and livelihood at risk just because they have differing opinions. And we cannot drag people’s family and friends into a false narrative, destroying everything they have worked for just because we do not like what they say or write.
Of course, we must write about things that are of interest to the public- corruption, crime, and current affairs but we must do so honestly and without using language or narratives that are inflammatory and misleading.
In this age of fake news, disinformation and social media, this as journalists is our most important responsibility.