Amid the high-profile death and destruction of Russia’s war upon Ukraine, one format of Western pushback – the de-platforming and outright banning of Russian media – has crept under multiple radars unnoticed.
There is some irony at play. As the West struggles to contrive a non-kinetic strategy that could slow or halt the Russian offensive without getting NATO dragged into a war that could go critical, Brussels is deploying censorial moves that could well have been lifted from the Kremlin’s playbook.
Whether Western democracies – supposedly agora of free information, free expression and free debate – should carry out such a policy has generated a ripple of debate but the policy has already been set. And President Vladimir Putin’s authorities were not slow to retaliate.
Engaging information-war mode, the Kremlin is shutting down the few independent domestic outlets that do not fall behind its policy line, while introducing draconian laws to control reporting. Those laws have the bureaus of major Western media in Russia considering the continued feasibility of their operations in the country.
Beyond irony, there is risk. The escalating media war could have blowback implications.
At a time when hopes are being aired across the West that news about the horrors of the war in Ukraine could compel popular Russian resistance to Putin, Russians are being robbed of outside information sources as the Kremlin uses Western media bans as the pretext to solidify its own information bubble.
Moreover, in the 21st century’s deeply intertwined digital landscape, the social media platforms that have followed policy directives and banned Russian content are being dragged into the fight and suffering access blocks in Russia.
The risk is now rising that Moscow will follow Chinese practice and seek to decouple its broad Internet infrastructure from the world wide web.
Western censors strike
In a statement by EU President Ursula von der Leyen posted on February 27, the EU outlined its opening moves against Russia. They included, in what the EU called an “unprecedented step,” a “ban in the EU on the Kremlin’s media machine.”
“The state-owned Russia Today and Sputnik, as well as their subsidiaries, will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war and to sow division in our union,” the EU said.
The targeted media are elements in a deliberate Russian strategy designed by President Vladimir Putin’s brain trust, according to former BBC Moscow correspondent Angus Roxburgh, in his 2013 work “Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia.”
Roxburgh, who after leaving the BBC worked for a time as a PR advisor to Putin, wrote that the Kremlin’s global messaging strategy shifted from trying to win the minds of Western audiences within the pages of Western media. Instead, Russia set up its own English-language media operations, namely Russia Today, now known as RT, and Sputnik.
The European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services (ERGA) subsequently offered details on the sanctions, which will cross multiple platforms applying to transmission and distribution through satellite, cable, online video-sharing platforms and applications.
At a time when Russia’s military power is being deployed in ultra-aggressive fashion against a population that seeks to shift itself into the Western sphere of influence, the move to ban these mouthpieces has won considerable approval.
“RT and Sputnik have long been the tools of Putin’s plan to instill the sense of confusion or disbelief into the minds of Westerners,” said Leonid Petrov, an Australian-based Russian and visiting fellow at the Australian National University.
“During peacetime, these media outlets were marginalized and mocked, but in times of escalating conflict, misinformation stops being innocent and turns into subversive propaganda,” Petrov, an expert on Eurasian and Post-Communist Studies, said.
An anti-democratic move?
Many would agree. But there has also been pushback – albeit based less on defense of the outlets themselves and more on the principle the censorial steps represent.
The European Federation of Journalists – which has published messages asking for help from the Ukrainian Union of Journalists, appealed for protective gear for reporters in Ukraine and demanded EU support for Russian independent journalists – has spoken out.
“The total closure of a media outlet does not seem to me to be the best way to combat disinformation or propaganda,” said EFJ Secretary General Ricardo Gutiérrez in a March 1 statement, “Fighting Disinformation with Censorship is a Mistake,” that was posted on the organization’s website. “This act of censorship can have a totally counterproductive effect on the citizens who follow the banned media.”
He insisted that the Russian narrative should be openly countered with professionally produced, factual reporting.
“It is always better to counteract the disinformation of propagandist or allegedly propagandist media by exposing their factual errors or bad journalism, by demonstrating their lack of financial or operational independence, by highlighting their loyalty to government interests and their disregard for the public interest,” he said.
The EFJ has won an unusual ally: Tech uber-entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Last week, Musk supplied Starlink satellite equipment to Ukraine to enable them internet access even if ground equipment and wireless data links are damaged by Russian fire.
Calling himself a “free speech absolutist,” Musk said over the weekend that he would not block Russian state media over his channel “unless at gunpoint.”
Academics promoting free expression have also jumped into the fray.
“The freedom to read and discuss different viewpoints are central to democratic debate and academic learning,” said Joseph Yi a South Korea-based political scientist and founder of the HxA Academy East Asia, an affiliate of the global Heretodox Academy, which lobbies for freedom of expression and diversity in academia.
“Democratic governments and social media companies should not ban news media outlets, even those run by authoritarian regimes,” said Yi, who has argued for the removal of South Korea’s bans on North Korean media.
Japan-based academic Shaun O’Dwyer, a colleague of Yi’s, noted that the two outlets are “bad faith producers of propaganda…for a regime that is waging an unjust, unprovoked war of aggression.”
Even so, he put forward arguments against the ban.
“First, there is value in permitting even such information to circulate, in the interests of better comprehending the way of thinking that lies behind it,” he said. “Second, because it does set precedents in justifying limits on journalistic and speech freedoms whenever a state of emergency is declared by authorities.”
Russians cut off from foreign media
Brussels’ move has offered the Kremlin ammunition for retaliatory bans.
“The risk of a censorship policy is also that of likely retaliation, as we have seen with the banning of (German broadcaster] DW in Russia in response to the banning of RT in Germany,” the EFJ’s Gutierrez said in his statement. “The result of this escalation has been the impoverishment of media pluralism in Russia”
And it is not just tit-for-tat. Russia is upping the ante and extending its own actions.
On March 4, the Russian Parliament passed a bill that would criminalize “fake reports.” Penalties for what may simply be reports that do not fit with the Kremlin’s worldview can extend to 15 years in prison.
That threat has cowed some of the world’s largest media outlets: The BBC, Bloomberg, CBS and CNN are all reportedly considering the future of their operations in Russia.
And the media war is leading to a platform war: RT America ceased all operations on March 4, after it was dropped from satellite carrier Direct TV.
Relatedly, escalation is spiraling from mainstream media to social platforms which have blocked access to RT and Sputnik. Facebook has been completely blocked in Russia, and access to Twitter has been restricted by the Kremlin.
The blockage of social media platforms not only denies Russians access to overseas information but also to real-time conversations and personal information sharing with non-Russians.
While Putin’s Russia built its own mainstream media companies to counter Western counterparts, the risk now is that it could create its own media platforms and create a walled-off digital information infrastructure.
There is almost certainly a blueprint in place. A long-mooted plan in Russia, that dates back to 2019 or earlier, is to reduce its strategic vulnerabilities in time of hostilities by replicating China’s “Great Firewall.”