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11th Nov 2022
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As outrage has mounted over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European sanctions have been targeted at two of Russia’s state-funded instruments of international propaganda: RT and Sputnik.
The question of what role democratic governments should play in fighting this kind of state-sponsored propaganda has long been topic of dispute within the European Union and its member states, as well as among the continent’s media freedom and freedom of expression organisations.
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However, Russia’s invasion – and the wider information warfare playing out across traditional social media – has already shifted the contours of the debate on how to guarantee freedom of expression while tackling legitimate disinformation.
On Wednesday (2 March), the EU took the unprecedented move of slapping with wide-ranging sanctions on Sputnik and five RT branches across Europe which prohibit the broadcasting and distribution of all forms of their content within the bloc.
Under the new rules, internet providers and national media watchdogs will be tasked with levying fines on any platforms continuing to share the content.
EU officials have welcomed the sanctions as a proportionate and necessary measure for insulating EU citizens from Kremlin propaganda.
The decision to apply a blanket ban on any media is a serious one and must always be subject to a high level of scrutiny.
It goes without saying that freedom of expression has never been an absolute right and restrictions on broadcast media can be justifiable under certain circumstances.
While some will see these bans as long overdue, the way in which these restrictions have been implemented poses serious questions.
Decisions on banning any media are not the mandate of the EU.
Instead, these decisions should be taken by independent national regulators under a set of clear and transparent of rules that reflect well-established international standards on broadcasting and freedom of expression.
While the EU’s decision to ban RT and Sputnik through sanctions adopted by the Council was well-intentioned, this does not change the fundamental principle that these decisions should have been made by national watchdogs independent from political considerations, in addition to being subject to judicial review.
While the EU has stressed the bans are time limited, the conditions for lifting them appear unlikely to be met, indicating these restrictions are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Politicians in some EU countries have already expressed the need for safeguards.
In addition to questions about the effectiveness of these bans within the EU, restrictions by European states will also have significant consequences outside their borders.
As the closure of Deutsche Welle’s office in Moscow in early February showed, Russia will not hesitate to carry out tit-for-tat measures against western media.
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Earlier Friday (4 March), the news websites of a number of international news websites including DW and the BBC were blocked. In the coming days, it is likely we could see additional blocks of expulsions from Russia of major European broadcasters.
This couldn’t come at a worse time.
Over the last week, Russian authorities have moved to silence what remains of the country’s domestic independent media over their coverage of the invasion.
The scale and speed of this crackdown has been unprecedented, with major independent broadcasters such as Ekho Moskvy and Dozhd TV being blocked and shuttered in the space of a few days.
In response, Russian citizens craving independent and factual news have turned to the BBC and other European broadcasters in the millions.
The expulsion of these broadcasters would starve Russian citizens seeking factual news at a crucial time.
Even during times of information warfare, it remains true that the best way to counter state-sponsored disinformation is not through broadcast bans or censorship.
Instead, it comes through fostering a professional and pluralistic media landscape with thriving, independent journalism which can factcheck falsehoods and insulate citizens from propaganda, in addition to programs for teaching media literacy.
The EU’s focus should be on investing in sustainable and long-term defence mechanisms against all forms of propaganda, as well as the creation of a legal framework across the EU in which independent journalism can flourish.
In the short term, efforts to limit RT and Sputnik’s ability to spread disinformation about the pretext and appalling human cost of the war in Ukraine may appear to be a timely and proportionate response.
In the long run, however, questions remain over their wisdom and effectiveness and, ultimately, whether reciprocal expulsions of Western media from Russia are a price European states are willing to pay.
Jamie Wiseman is advocacy officer on Europe at the International Press Institute (IPI), a global media freedom organisation based in Vienna.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s, not those of EUobserver.
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