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26th May 2019

Estonia defends ban on Russian 'pseudo media'

  • Estonia is to host a number of EU meetings in its presidency role (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Estonia's EU presidency has claimed the right to ban Russian reporters from its events if it deemed them guilty of "subversive activities".

"Estonia reserves the right of not accrediting, or considering as media, such channels (those belonging to the Rossiya Segodnya group) whose editorial offices are not independent, which do not follow good journalistic practice," it told EUobserver on Tuesday (29 August).

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  • Sputnik promoted "hostile subversive activities", Estonia said (Photo: de.sputniknews.com)

It spoke after having declined accreditation for three Rossiya Segodnya staff to go to an EU foreign ministers meeting in Tallinn on 7 September.

It said it excluded them because they were "promoting hostile subversive activities and propaganda under the cover of press freedom".

It is due to host a number of other events during its six-month tenure at the EU helm.

It said "the same principle is valid for events held in Estonia during the EU presidency" as for the 7 September meeting, but an Estonian spokeswoman, Piret Seeman, declined to say if Rossiya Segodnya would be excluded from other events.

Rossiya Segodnya is a Russian state firm that owns Sputnik, an online media agency which is notorious for bogus anti-Western content.

It fought a smear campaign against French leader Emmanuel Macron in May, who also banned it from press events and who called it an "agent of influence".

Examples of Sputnik stories include one that German chancellor Angela Merkel took a selfie with a Muslim terrorist.

It has said Nato's new HQ was modelled on the SS logo used by Nazi Germany.

It has also reported that the EU orchestrated ethnic Albanian pogroms of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo.

It has been called "an enemy of journalism" by Reporters Without Borders, a French NGO, and a "pseudo news agency" by the European Parliament.

But the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), a professional body with its HQ in Brussels, has challenged the Rossiya Segodnya ban.

It urged the Council of Europe, a civil liberties watchdog in Strasbourg, France, last week to query Estonia's decision. The EFJ's head, Ricardo Gutierrez, also accused Estonia of "a serious attack on media freedom".

"We are not supporting Rossiya Segodnya or the Russian Federation. We are promoting professional and human rights principles," Gutierrez told EUobserver.

"That kind of preventive ban is not acceptable, even to counter propaganda or to sanction journalists who allegedly violated ethical standards", he said.

He said he expected the Council of Europe to put "diplomatic pressure" on Estonia.

He also said that the "case law" of the European Court of Human Rights, a Council offshoot, backed up his position.

Estonia defiant

Estonia has denied wrongdoing.

It said on Tuesday that Russian journalists who followed "the principles and values of independent press in their work" were welcome at its events.

"Disinformation and propaganda has to be taken seriously all across Europe. It is vital to tackle [it] and [to] respond," the office in charge of its EU presidency said.

Steven Blockmans, a scholar of EU affairs at Ceps, a think tank in Brussels, said that Council of Europe pressure was unlikely to change much.

He said Estonia could make a case for banning Sputnik on grounds of "national security", which overrode the "right of freedom of expression" in the Council's own European Convention on Human Rights.

"Sputnik is well-known for systematically peddling Russian propaganda in order to undermine the stability of third countries, especially those on its borders with large Russian-speaking minorities [such as Estonia]", Blockmans said.

Rule of law

The Estonia case posed wider questions on how to handle Russia's disinformation campaign.

With Germany to hold elections in September, the EU's largest country has also pondered how to crack down on abusive content.

But for Stefan Meister, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Berlin, denial of accreditation should be "a court rather than a government decision" based on a media firm's violation of rule of law.

He said Rossiya Segodna was "an instrument of the Russian state" that was used to "defame EU member states".

But he warned that Estonia's "political" approach could backfire.

"It will give Russia an argument that there is no freedom of media in the EU", he said.

Jonathan Eyal, a security expert at the Rusi think tank in London, said Estonia sent a useful message.

He said it was "not a bad idea" for the EU to remind Russia that it was "not a soft touch, that we can also play rough" in the media arena.

Online torrent

But he said excluding individual reporters from press conferences would do little to counter Russia's media offensive.

Eyal said Estonia's accreditation move was "quaint" in an age when "social media that spew out torrents of rubbish are much more dangerous".

He also said it was better for media accreditation to remain a "bureaucratic" not a "political" process in EU states.

Eyal said if that were to change it could lead to a multiplication of media bans.

Estonia's judgement - that Sputnik was "not independent" - could apply to many media from Asia and from the Middle East, he said.

"It's difficult to see how it would be any different for China's news agency, Xinhau, for instance," the British expert said.

This story was updated on 31 August to add quotes by the EFJ's Gutierrez

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