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29th Jun 2022

EU begins belated crackdown on Kremlin disinformation

  • Several journalists in Russia also have been arrested for their coverage of the war in Ukraine, according to Reporters Without Borders (Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet)
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Long-running disinformation campaigns led by the Kremlin have prompted the EU to announce bans on its key TV and online outlets that EU leaders say are key planks of the Russian war strategy in Ukraine.

The EU needs to shut down "the Kremlin's propaganda machine" to avoid the spread of "lies" used by Russian president Vladimir Putin to justify war and divide the EU, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told European Parliament lawmakers on Tuesday (1 March).

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Taking outlets like Sputnik and Russia Today offline and off-air are "unprecedented actions" in response to "unprecedented aggression by Russia," she said during a plenary debate in Brussels.

The move against Russian media came as part of the wider package of sanctions imposed on Russia. But shutting down any media attracts particular scrutiny, since it pits what some fear is a threat to free speech against the need to defend national and public security.

It may also be a logistical headache to achieve.

The commission admitted Monday that experts still were looking for "the best legal base" to ban Russia Today and Sputnik, and their subsidiaries, in the 27 EU countries.

As Russia continues its brutal invasion of Ukraine and false narratives such as the widespread surrender of Ukraine's troops continue to emerge, social media companies also are in the spotlight for their roles in spreading Russian disinformation.

On Monday, the prime ministers of Poland and the three Baltics states sent a joint letter to the chief executives of Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube, urging them to do more to stop the spread of "lies."

Big Tech response

The intervention by the four prime ministers followed a call made on Sunday by EU commissioners Věra Jourová and Thierry Breton for major online platforms to take "urgent" measures.

Twitter, among other social media companies, had been marking posts by Kremlin-backed news media entities as Russian-state-controlled outlets to raise online users' awareness.

Earlier this week, Twitter took the additional step of marking all tweets linked to Russia Today and Sputnik with the label "Russia state-affiliated media" — a measure that includes tweets from the outlets' journalists.

Articles from Russia Today and Sputnik were still accessible via Google as of Tuesday.

But Google said that it has blocked Russian state-funded media from making money with ads across all its platforms.

Facebook and Instagram, belonging to Meta, plus Youtube, which is owned by Google's parent company Alphabet, say they have blocked access to Sputnik and Russia Today in Europe.

Russia, meanwhile, is pushing back by partially restricting access by Russian users to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and to at least six online newspapers.

Several journalists in Russia also have been arrested for their coverage of the war in Ukraine, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

"The information war is in full swing in Russia," Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe, said in a statement. She was referring to how Putin uses the media to justify his actions to Russian citizens.

On Tuesday, EU lawmakers called on social media companies to suspend "war propaganda accounts." They also asked EU governments to curtail broadcast licences of Kremlin-backed media in all EU member states.

Some telecom providers, such as Belgium's Telenet, have already taken that step; TV viewers using its services can no longer access Russia Today broadcasts.

But there are cautionary voices, too.

According to RSF, any restrictions on freedom of expression should be done with the intervention of an independent authority such as a judge. "The real problem today is that regimes with locked information systems can influence regimes with open information systems," RSF told EUobserver.

For its part, US-based company Netflix has refused to comply with a new Russian law obliging the video platform to broadcast 20 must carry free-to-air Russian news, sports and entertainment TV channels.

"Given the current situation, we have no plans to add these channels to our service," a Netflix spokesperson told EUobserver.

Czech Republic and Slovakia

In the rush to crack down on Russian propaganda, the question of how to balance that goal with maintaining freedom of speech also has become a particular issue in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Last Friday, the Czech association CZ.NIC that administers .cz domains and the cyber operations office of the Czech defence ministry took down a slew of websites in response to a Russian disinformation carried on sites using the Czech national domain.

In Slovakia, which borders Ukraine, the government last week passed a law allowing the blocking of certain websites.

Civil society advocates are in two minds.

They say the websites have served as a primary vehicle for Russia to divide civil society and erode principles of democracy and the rule of law. They also say there's a lack of clarity about who funds the websites and who actually controls them.

On the other hand, they suggest that authorities in Prague and Bratislava, if they misuse such powers in future, could tarnish the relatively good reputations for press freedom enjoyed by the Czech Republic and Slovakia compared to Hungary and Poland.

Shutting down the sites down was understandable, because doing so is part of a battle with Russia that's being waged in cyberspace, said David Kotora, the head of communications for Transparency International Czech Republic.

The sites blocked by Prague "have been for many years considered the main channels used by Kremlin propaganda in the Czech Republic," he said.

Even so, the bans in the Czech Republic and Slovakia "are very close to censorship," Kotora said. Such steps "must be handled with extreme caution and must be very precisely targeted to not undermine basic EU values such as freedom of speech."

Twitter 'best' at applying EU disinformation code

The European Commission has introduced beefed-up rules tackling disinformation. Although the code is voluntary, it is set to be embedded into the Digital Services Act, where sanctions could be imposed.

Call for sanctions on foreign meddling and disinformation

The draft report, from a special committee on foreign interference and disinformation, also calls for the EU-wide ban on foreign funding for European political parties — and legislation to make it harder for foreign regimes to recruit former top politicians.

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