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13 July, 2024
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Divisions in Cyprus amplify fact-checking challenges

The Mediterranean island nation’s unusual dynamic poses challenges for fighting off misinformation.

By Louis Jacobson*

Cyprus, an ethnically divided island in the Mediterranean, is like any other nation: It’s been hit by a wave of misinformation, and residents are trying to keep up.

The former British colony — smaller in area than Puerto Rico — is split by a United Nations buffer zone that separates the predominantly Greek south and the predominantly Turkish north. The southern portion, known as the Republic of Cyprus, is a member of the European Union, while the northern portion, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is recognized only by Turkey. International-led unification efforts failed in 2004 and 2017, although free passage across the buffer zone has been allowed since 2003 and tensions are generally low.

“With increasing clickbait journalism and fake news, there’s a growing need for fact-checking on the island,” said Anil Isik, a freelance journalist and member of the Association of European Journalists Cyprus. The coronavirus pandemic, Isik said, “highlighted the need for credible news and the importance of fact-checkers” in both communities.

Hasan Kahvecioglu, a longtime journalist in the Turkish north, agreed. “Because of the divide, we need fact-check journalists even more than other countries,” he said. “Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot journalists are not using common terminology.”

The pandemic inspired the most comprehensive effort to date to combat misinformation on the island: Fact Check Cyprus, a Greek-language website. It began as a loose coalition of journalists and academics, focusing on coronavirus-related misinformation.

In early 2023, Thanos Sitistas, a Greek-born journalist with experience at the Greek fact-checking site Ellinika Hoaxes, formalized the project, working with Loukia Taxitari, a psychology professor at Neapolis University Pafos; Michael Sirivianos, an engineering and technology professor at the Cyprus University of Technology in Limassol; and several Cypriot expat freelancers in London. It now addresses claims about immigration, LGBTQ+ policy and other issues.

“People here read the same websites as they do in Greece,” Sitistas said. “They are subject to the same disinformation channels.” These include Russian disinformation, such as claims about the war in Ukraine. Increasingly, Cyprus has been a magnet for Russian transplants and wealth. Sometimes claims generated or amplified by Iran come to the site’s attention as well, Sitistas said.

Sitistas describes Fact Check Cyprus as more of a “network, not a newsroom.” Sitistas added that he and his colleagues plan to apply for accreditation with the International Fact-Checking Network, a division of the Poynter Institute, in early 2024.

Within the E.U., Sitistas said, “Cyprus has the same vote as Germany, but it hasn’t gotten enough attention when it comes to fact-checking.”

While Sitistas and his colleagues say they aren’t seeing that much misinformation focused specifically on Greek Cypriot-Turkish Cypriot tensions, the island’s unusual dynamic has posed challenges for fighting off misinformation, according to interviews with a range of journalists, academics and officials during a weeklong visit to the island.Linguist Stavroulla Hadjiconstantinou of the Cyprus University of Technology in Limassol, Republic of Cyprus. (Louis Jacobson/PolitiFact)

Stavroulla Hadjiconstantinou, a linguist at the Cyprus University of Technology in Limassol in the Republic of Cyprus, said the division of the island makes people on either side of the buffer zone susceptible to biases. They are “less open to objective or critical evaluation of the information circulated by the media,” she said, adding that she works to educate her students on how to detect and counter fake and misleading information online.

Nicholas Nicoli, an associate professor of communication at the University of Nicosia in the Republic of Cyprus and co-author of “Digital Democracy, Social Media and Disinformation,” agreed. “There are lots of cracks below our society’s surface, and they are not hard to find and accentuate across the digital landscape,” Nicoli said.

In Cyprus, “people are not aware of the existence of tools and sites” to fact-check what they see on social media, added Eleni Kyza, a professor of communication and internet studies at the Cyprus University of Technology.

Meanwhile, the local media has faced challenges keeping up with misrepresentations, multiple observers said.

Salaries for journalists are so low that there’s a well-trodden path from journalism into government jobs, observers say. “There’s a joke that’s not a joke — that there are more former journalists in the presidential palace than in any newsroom in Cyprus,” said Nicholas Karides, director of the Institute for Mass Media, which promotes investigative reporting and media literacy.Sertac Sonan, professor of international relations at Cyprus International University, at the House of Jade coffee house in northern Nicosia, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. (Louis Jacobson/PolitiFact)

Meanwhile, media outlets, especially in the Turkish north, are increasingly being taken over by businesses and elites with economic interests at stake. “We still have many independent media outlets, but this is a global problem,” said Sertac Sonan, a political scientist at Cyprus International University in northern Nicosia. “You don’t have enough funding for independent media.”

Kyriakos Pierides, a longtime journalist in the Republic of Cyprus, added that “the mainstream media tends to follow the official narratives. They’re not working toward objective journalism. It’s a very serious situation — it’s producing news without a critical voice.”

The island’s small size is another complicating factor, said Shemaine Bushnell, an editor with the Cyprus edition of the Greek newspaper Kathimerini. The combined population of the two communities in Cyprus is about the same as the state of Maine.

Cypriots “are reluctant to voice complaints due to the close-knit nature of the community,” Bushnell said. “Residents are fearful of needing a favor or engaging in business where the concept of nepotism prevails, so they hesitate to speak out. Whether it’s disinformation, misinformation or a lack of information, the core problem lies not in these factors but in the citizens’ tendency to remain silent.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in Cyprus is the linguistic divide.

“In Cyprus, the fact that there are two languages poses a problem for fact-checking,” said Sami Ozuslu, who worked for three decades as a journalist before winning election to the parliament in the 'Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus'.Media studies professor Huri Yontucu at the Büyük Han in northern Nicosia, 'Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus'. (Louis Jacobson/PolitiFact)

Trilingual media coverage — in English, Turkish, and Greek — is needed in Cyprus, said Huri Yontucu, an assistant professor of new media and communication at Arkin University of Creative Arts and Design in northern Cyprus.

“People don’t know what’s going on on the other side,” Yontucu said. “In divided and conflicted societies, one of the important things is collaborating with and learning about others. Media is one of the significant tools that play a common role in increasing and decreasing the tensions among conflicted societies by informing them about the ‘other.’”

A rare “bi-communal” media effort spanning the Greek and Cypriot communities is “Mazi/Birlikte” (“Together”), a TV show that airs for an hour once a week on the Cyprus Broadcasting Corp., a public broadcaster. “We want to show people sharing the same experience — it doesn’t matter their ethnicity,” said Vasvi Çiftçioğlu, one of the journalists on the show.

Even so, the current version of the show has been downsized. From 2004 to 2018, its predecessor show aired daily.Television journalist Vasvi Çiftçioğlu at the Rüstem Kitabevi used book store and cafe in northern Nicosia, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. (Louis Jacobson/PolitiFact)

On the upside, there seems to be a growing demand for expanding residents’ media literacy, and several efforts are underway.

A presentation about fact-checking and misinformation by the author at the Pedagogical Institute, an arm of the Republic of Cyprus’ education ministry in the Nicosia suburb of Latsia, drew roughly two dozen middle- and secondary school teachers during the school day, with many of them saying they are eager to learn what they can do to improve their students’ social media habits.

Yontucu, who teaches media literacy to her college students, welcomes such interest. Media literacy, she said, “should be started from primary school.” Other academics and journalists echoed this.

A similar presentation by the author to public information officials with the Republic of Cyprus government drew a similar number of attendees and expressions of interest.Kathimerini Cyprus newspaper journalist and analyst Ioannis Ioannou at the Daily Roast in Nicosia, Republic of Cyprus. (Louis Jacobson/PolitiFact)


“To deal with all this, we need to work on media literacy,” said Ioannis Ioannou, a journalist and foreign policy analyst with the Cyprus edition of the newspaper Kathimerini. “We need a strategy to win that.”

At Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta, the biggest city in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus other than northern Nicosia, media literacy is a required course for journalism students, said the chair of the new media and journalism department, Hanife Aliefendioğlu. The course description says it “encourages a critical, creative, and questioning attitude and orientation toward the media in all its various forms.”

Journalists, academics and other officials said that money, technical expertise and training will all be key to improving media literacy in Cyprus.

“It’s an arms race,” said Sirivianos, the professor and Fact Check Cyprus contributor.

[Original article was published in and is republished with their permission]

 *Louis Jacobson has been with PolitiFact since 2009, currently as senior correspondent. Previously, he served as deputy editor of Roll Call and as founding editor of its legislative wire service, CongressNow.

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