Restricting free speech in Europe is a victory for autocrats

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GreatFire condemns the recent restrictions imposed by the European Union (EU) on two Russian state-owned media, Russia Today and the Sputnik News agency. Not only is this ban inefficient and counterproductive but it sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of access to information in the EU and in the rest of the world.

Following the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military, the European Council has imposed a series of economic sanctions aimed at the Russian government, Russia’s financial institutions as well as Russian oligarchs.

In addition to the many economic and financial sanctions it adopted in the first days of the war, on February 27th the Council announced a ban on Russia Today and Sputnik in the EU. The legal document detailing this ban was adopted on March 1st and published the following day. The decision to ban the two Russian state-owned media outlets is detailed in two paragraphs:

1.   It shall be prohibited for operators to broadcast, or to enable, facilitate or otherwise contribute to broadcast, any content by the legal persons, entities or bodies listed in Annex IX, including through transmission or distribution by any means such as cable, satellite, IP-TV, internet service providers, internet video-sharing platforms or applications, whether new or pre-installed.

2.   Any broadcasting licence or authorisation, transmission and distribution arrangement with the legal persons, entities or bodies listed in Annex IX shall be suspended.

An annex lists all five branches of Russia Today as well as Sputnik as targets of the ban. As the Council’s decision clearly states, the Sputnik and RT apps were targeted by the sanctions on all platforms including the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store. 

The European sanction regime draws from three different mechanisms: the EU’s autonomous sanctions programs, the UNSC’s sanctions programs and specific UN sanctions that are implemented and reinforced with stricter measures by the EU. In order to achieve compliance with EU regulations, and avoid facilitating criminal activities, private companies operating in the EU must check their obligations vis-à-vis the sanctions and ensure they do not violate any by engaging with entities or individuals targeted by the sanctions.

On the same day, in Canada, major cable operators announced their own decision to remove Russia Today from their channel line-up in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission remained silent. Meanwhile, in the UK and the U.S., the two media remained operational, although UK’s media regulator, the Office of Communications (Ofcom), announced its launch of additional investigations into RT’s coverage of the war.

Under EU sanction rules, Apple was legally obliged to remove the apps and did so between February 28th and March 1st. However, as the sanction only provided that RT and Sputnik could not operate in any of the EU territories, Apple could have decided to leave the app in non-EU App Stores. After all, the company kept the two apps available in Russia’s App Store. Therefore, the censorship of these apps in non-EU App Stores can be attributed to the Cupertino-based tech company’s own arbitrary decision. In other words, only the removals from the 27 EU-based App Stores are a result of Apple’s legal obligations.

Apple was not the only Big Tech company to deplatform the two state-owned media. Google removed their channels from YouTube and Facebook deleted their accounts. Those removals by Big Tech are now presented alongside the actions taken by other private companies who have decided to cut their ties with the Russian Federation. Apple also halted product sales in Russia. 

However, Apple’s removal of the RT News and Sputnik News apps from all App Stores except Russia’s, along with its limitation of its Apple Pay service in the country, was not a choice but was done in order to comply with European sanctions. In a short internal email, Apple implicitly presented all measures taken as the result of the company’s decision to support Ukraine and to pressure Russia into stopping its invasion:

We have paused all product sales in Russia. Last week, we stopped all exports into our sales channel in the country. Apple Pay and other services have been limited. RT News and Sputnik News are no longer available for download from the App Store outside Russia. And we have disabled both traffic and live incidents in Apple Maps in Ukraine as a safety and precautionary measure for Ukrainian citizens.

In this case,  Apple, and other Big Tech, have been instrumentalized by the European Council to censor Russia Today and Sputnik. But this is not the first time that Apple has been co-opted in this way. Apple is well versed in implementing government-led censorship.

A worrying consensus

Censorship of media outlets, albeit state-owned media regularly engaging in what is labeled by their detractors as “propaganda”, should not be considered lightly. Freedom of access to information, the right to impart news and express opinions of all kinds, as well as the right for the people to choose their source of information from a plurality of choice, are cornerstones of all European democracies.

The decision to impose a ban on RT and Sputnik in the EU differs from other EU sanctions in several ways. All civil society organizations working on press freedom and freedom of speech should take notice.

First, information is an immaterial product that cannot intrinsically be labeled as dangerous. We do not own information, we access it. It is not a supply and therefore cannot be restricted in the same way as cars or computers. 

Secondly, the Council’s ban does not directly target the Russian government, the Russian authorities or individuals close to power. It does not even affect Russian citizens, who still have access to RT News and Sputnik News in Russia’s App Store. This ban only affects citizens in the European Union.

Finally, the reasons invoked by the Council to impose the ban on the two media should be an equal source of concern, as they venture well beyond the scope of the invasion of Ukraine. Adding to the accusations of “disinformation”, “propaganda”, and “gravely distorting and manipulating facts”, the Council listed a set of reasons which could serve, by themselves and without any context of war, as justification for a permanent ban of these media outlets:

The Russian Federation has engaged in a systematic, international campaign of media manipulation and distortion of facts in order to enhance its strategy of destabilisation of its neighbouring countries and of the Union and its Member States. In particular, the propaganda has repeatedly and consistently targeted European political parties, especially during election periods, as well as targeting civil society, asylum seekers, Russian ethnic minorities, gender minorities, and the functioning of democratic institutions in the Union and its Member States.

These criteria effectively allowed the EU Council to bypass media regulators in all member states, which, in any free press environment, are the main institutions with both the ability and the skill set to determine a breach of ethics and to revoke the broadcasting license of media outlets.

Yet, almost none of these regulators, which have existed long before and during the short existence of RT and Sputnik, have taken serious steps to regulate the ethical failures of these media. They have yet to react to decisions taken on their behalf by the EU Council. Only the Office of Communication (Ofcom) in the UK has opened an investigation into these media outlets. 

While the ban of these two media has been largely covered by the mainstream press, it was indistinctly referred to as merely one of the many measures taken by the EU in response to Russia’s attack. Very few voices expressed reservations about the decision. Journalist Ella Whelan did discuss the negative impact when content deemed “propaganda” is suppressed by EU officials.

“We need to know what is going on in Russia. Having access to the unfiltered Moscow line is vital when trying to understand Putin’s next steps. 

[…]

By labelling this as dangerous ‘misinformation’, Dorries, von der Leyen and Clegg are preventing European citizens from getting the full picture on the political machinations coming out of the Kremlin.

Dutch Digital Minister Alexandra van Huffelen noted in an interview with Politico: ”We should try to keep it [the ban] as short as possible and as long as necessary,” said van Huffelen. “It should be the one very, very exception because there is a war.”

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) also published a press release on March 1, arguing that “fighting disinformation with censorship is a mistake”. However, many journalists’ associations and press freedom organizations have thus far remained silent on this issue.

A dangerous precedent

The expressly stated logic behind the ban seems at odds with the actions taken by the various platform owners, including Apple. Apple’s implementation of the ban, and the company’s additional actions, in addition to the sanctions, raise some important questions. 

First, such a ban wrongly presupposes the inability of European citizens to exercise their capacity of discernment. By banning the channels, the EU Council implicitly suggests that the remaining information environment is now “clean”. The opposite could not be more true. As NewsGuard explains, there are more than one hundred Russian propaganda websites currently active, and there is a strong probability that many viewers of the now banned TV channels will end up getting information from one of these sites. The result might be an even wider spread of disinformation as the majority of these platforms hide or do not explicitly state their ownership or loyalty to Russia’s official line, contrary to RT and Sputnik News, which were known to be affiliated to the regime and, on some platforms, were labeled as such.

Coincidentally, this is the same approach that Apple takes to the “curation” of its app store. Apple arbitrarily censors apps in the name of protecting their customers from harmful information. Although any Apple customer in any country can simply open the Safari browser on their device and access both RT and Sputnik.

The fact that the ban did not target other State news agencies, such as TASS or Ria Novosti, which can continue to operate freely in the EU, also gives an indication of the haste with which the EU Council made its decision.

Furthermore, if the goal of the Council was to stop the negative effect of the propaganda and lies spread by RT and Sputnik, imposing its ban on EU territories is ineffective as the most negatively impacted population are Russian citizens. They are the people in the world most subjected to Russian state propaganda. Citizens of EU countries enjoy access to many sources of information and are not in a position where they must be weaned off a toxic flow of Russian disinformation.

On the contrary, Russian citizens desperately need the ability to access a wide variety of news sources. On March 1st, Russia’s Prosecutor-General ordered the country’s media authority to restrict access to the Ekho Moskvy radio station and the Dozhd TV Channel. These outlets had been accused of publishing “information calling for extremist activity and violence“. A few days earlier, several newspapers owned by VK-Media group were raided by the police after publishing anti-war messages.

At the same time, Russian lawmakers are about to adopt legislation that would punish “fake” information about the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine with up to 15 years in prison. The bill aims to punish those who knowingly “distort the purpose, role and tasks of the Russian Armed Forces” and could even apply to “fake” information about Russia’s war losses. 

When the EU borrows methods from authoritarian regimes

Apart from the fact that the Russian government and legislators are targeting their own press, while the EU targets foreign media, there is not much difference between how Russian authorities repress their media and how the European Union presents its plan to address disinformation in the future.

On February 26, the Russia media authority, Roskomnadzor, issued a statement accusing ten media outlets of disseminating “unreliable publicly significant information” and announced that it had launched an administrative investigation of the media. Roskomnadzor also threatened to block the websites for these media outlets in order to restrict access to false information.

In a speech held on February 27, the president of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, said:

 “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. So we are developing tools to ban their toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe.”

Such similarities in the hastily elaborated rhetoric from both Russia and the EU on the matters of “disinformation” and “propaganda” should raise questions. Unfortunately, the comparison does not stop there. In order to enforce its ban, the EU Council relied on three of the most powerful Tech companies in the world: Facebook, Google and Apple. By co-opting these companies, the EU Council has resorted to the exact same strategies used by Russia and China, and has lost at the same time all credibility in condemning the use of such methods by other, less free, regimes.

It is even more worrying to contemplate the possibility that the supra-national body could reiterate such a ban on information in the future, consolidating an ad hoc, unregulated and extra-legal partnership with Big Tech. Big Tech will no doubt point to such a relationship to justify their collaboration with repressive regimes.

We can already picture Apple’s rhetoric when it will be asked to justify its arbitrary removal of apps and information from the App Store, in China or elsewhere: “How we operate in China is not different from how we operated in the EU recently. We have to comply with all legal obligations, wherever we operate.” 

Who will then tell Apple that the EU sanctions on RT were abusive, that media regulation does not fall within the competence of the European Union and that the European Council had no right to grant or withdraw broadcasting licenses? 

Western democracies should not resort to censorship of media by instrumentalizing technology companies for political ends. Propaganda and disinformation are not solved by censorship, but by promotion of information made in the interest of the public. The European Union must live up to its role to safeguard fundamental freedoms. Freedoms which are threatened by authoritarian regimes as well as private actors who prioritize profits over human rights.

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