Saturday

16th Feb 2019

Opinion

No freedom to lie

  • Linkevicius: 'A lie isn't an alternative point of view' (Photo: eu2013.lt)

A few months ago, on national day in one EU country which I won't name, Russian uniforms marched alongside others in the celebration.

It was the same uniform which is currently taking part in aggression against Ukraine. Did it look good? Was it picked up by European media as being a bit strange? No. You never heard of it.

Read and decide

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There’s a tendency to consider propaganda as an exotic bug which only affects the lives of people far away - in Ukraine, Georgia, Russia.

But the carefully-packaged lies are finding their ways to audiences all over Europe.

It's the result of a systematic and heavily-funded campaign, and saying that the West is immune because we have a plethora of media outlets isn't true.

In fact, large, Russian-speaking portions of the EU audience, whether in the Baltic states, or in London, get the Kremlin's view first and foremost. It's the result of language limitations or old media habits. In this sphere, media plurality means plural TV channels all manipulated by one (Russian) authority.

Past gas crises involving the Russian gas supplier, Gazprom, should have taught us a lesson.

There is no such thing as diversity of supply if all the routes lead to one source. And lack of diversity is a security threat.

We had the courage to confront Gazprom’s monopoly in Europe. Now it’s time to confront Russia’s infoprom, which has weaponised information in the same way the Kremlin weaponised energy supplies.

We need to start thinking not just "what can we do for them?", referring to non-EU eastern European states, but also "what can we do to protect ourselves?".

There’s more to it than allocating some money from foreign relations budgets. It’s equally important to ensure the transparency of funding and ownership of media outlets which operate in the EU.

Kremlin mouthpieces know how to register in our cities. They put on a "made in the EU" label, then they begin to quietly incite hatred, hoping no one will question what they're doing because of the holy cow of free speech.

Some are starting to speak out.

Ofcom, the UK media regulator, has said "freedom of speech is not absolute".

A few months ago, the European Commission said limiting freedom of expression can be a proportionate course of action in order to protect the integrity of public information.

The European Court of Human rights has said freedom of speech is not a defence for defamation.

We should ensure there is a level playing field, and the same set of rules, for all of Europe’s media outlets. No one should be allowed to play rugby on a soccer pitch.

In January, four foreign ministers (from Lithuania, the UK, Estonia, and Denmark) called on the EU to respond to Kremlin propaganda, with a “4 A’s” approach: ensure information alternatives; raise public awareness; be assertive on proactive communication of facts; and request accountability from media outlets.

It’s nothing to do with censorship, or with producing our own propaganda/lies.

The Netherlands and Poland, together with the European Endowment for Democracy in Brussels, have come up with some concrete ideas on alternative TV content for Russian-language audiences, both news and entertainment.

The meeting of project donors, today in Warsaw, is part of this effort.

But to be successful, we need to change our thinking.

We need to understand that the propaganda is directed against all of Europe, not just the east, and we need to start calling things by their proper names.

A T-90 tank in Ukraine isn’t just a "vehicle". A lie is not an alternative point of view. Propaganda is not a legitimate form of public diplomacy.

Its our naivety which is preventing us from taking appropriate action, even as the other side advances its undeclared info-war.

Linas Linkevicius is the foreign minister of Lithuania

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