Moscow's Ostankino television production and broadcast center

The war in Ukraine – a war for free speech

From William Horsley, 14 May 2022

February 24 was a fateful day for world peace as President Putin staked his own and Russia’s future on an unprovoked military assault against the country’s neighbour and emphatically rejected the “rules-based international order”. At a stroke he ensured Russia’s long-term isolation and completed its jagged journey into totalitarianism. That might in fact have been his goal as much as any territorial ambitions in Ukraine. For now at least, Putin has close to absolute control over a separate “Russian world – Ruskiy Mir” of his dreams.

Less noticed but in its way equally far-reaching, Mr. Putin quickly moved to put in place a doomsday mechanism that was meant to deliver for him an “information monopoly” to match the virtual monopoly on political and official power he already wielded. On 4 March Putin won unanimous approval in the Duma for a law which ended all pretence of freedom of expression and free media inside Russia.

The law made it a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail to call the euphemistically-called “special military operation” in Ukraine an invasion or to “disrespect” the armed forces. Very soon the remaining independent media including Novaya Gazeta newspaper, TV Rain, and Echo of Moscow radio station were closed down. Many international media which had reported out of Moscow throughout the Cold War quit in a hurry for fear of ending up in a Russian jail.  Russian people’s access to foreign media was largely blocked and over 2000 websites were reportedly taken down.

Margarita Simonyan, the editorial head of Russia’s international state broadcaster RT, has enthusiastically backed government censorship of media saying “No great nation can exist without control over information.” 

The long-established core principles of professional journalism revolve around accuracy, truthfulness, fair treatment and rejection of state interference in editorial decisions.

With Mr. Putin’s determination to conceal the truth about the invasion of Ukraine, Russia morphed from an authoritarian society where open dissent was dangerous but possible into a fully dystopian state with uncanny similarities to the one portrayed by George Orwell in his novel 1984. The book was published in 1949 as a searing satire on the totalitarian worlds of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.

Big Brother really is watching now
The hallmark of this Orwellian condition is the systematic debasement and abuse of language using official falsehoods and distortions which turn truth on its head. Typically, they also vilify “enemies of the state” at home and abroad as legitimate targets of public hostility.  Announcing the new draconian “fake news” law, Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin declared: “This law will force very tough punishment on those who lie about Russia’s armed forces”.

The irony of that statement was complete. From that moment it became a crime in Russia to speak any part of the truth about the war in Ukraine, or about the mounting evidence of disastrous errors, massive Russian casualties and war crimes allegedly committed by the Russian army in Ukraine. Soviet-era censorship was back, using the timeless weapons of totalitarianism: fear, repression, and suppression of free speech.

The tropes of 1984 can now be seen in Russia for real. “Newspeak” exists in the servile output of state-managed TV, spouting lies shamelessly. “Big Brother” is there in the exaggerated cult of personality of the undisputed leader of what Putin himself has called “a vertical of power”;  and the “Ministry of Truth” holds sway by means of an array of laws criminalising truth-telling about the past and the present and the arbitrary interpretation of those laws. The whole construct is supported by the state’s unbending control of Russia’s judicial system and parliament, which combine to make criminals or “traitors” of any who dare to protest or expose corruption.  

In the book 1984, ‘the party’ has absolute powers to decide that black is white and that “two plus two equals five”. In the Kremlin’s make-believe world the Ukrainian army bombards its own cities, Russia is defending itself against a phantom attack by NATO forces, and Israel is supporting a neo-Nazi regime in power in Kyiv.

In the ten weeks since the invasion began, the exodus of independent-minded journalists and others has become a flood. Inside Russia the tally of organisations and persons labelled as “foreign agents” and subject to intrusive scrutiny and public opprobrium exceeds 400. Among them, officials announced last week, is Ekaterina Schulmann, a former member of the presidential Human Rights Council and well-known political scientist widely respected for her professional integrity.

Speaking to the New York Times in Berlin where she currently has an academic fellowship, Professor Schulmann observed: “Shortly it will become impossible to work in my field in Russia”.  That indeed seems to be the intention. Vladimir Putin has branded all those who advocate western values as “scum and traitors”. His spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said the “cleansing” would happen spontaneously as disloyal Russians moved abroad.

Since April Novaya Gazeta has been publishing a legally separate overseas edition, Novaya Gazeta Europe. It is staffed by former Novaya Gazeta journalists who have quit Russia and aims to reach both Russian and international readers beyond the reach of Russian censors.

Ukrainian journalists on the “information frontline”
In 2014, prompted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war over two pro-Russian breakaway territories in the Donbas, Ukrainian journalists and media educators launched the fact checking site. It quickly earned intentional acclaim as a flagship project of international efforts to counter Moscow’s campaign of propaganda and disinformation, including fictitious claims of Ukrainian “genocide” against Russian speakers in the East.

Since then Ukraine’s leading media, civil society organisations and political reformers have struggled hard to overcome the Soviet-era legacy of oligarchic and state controls of the media landscape, high-level corruption, and political interference in the independence of the country’s courts.

Following Russia’s massive invasion in February, Ukraine’s major TV channels agreed to pool their coverage from all the various battlegrounds and regions so as to give the population the most comprehensive coverage possible. But Ukraine’s media have insisted on maintaining their political independence, in stark contrast to Russia’s state-controlled news channels.

UNESCO’s Observatory of killed journalists has confirmed the deaths of nine journalists so far in the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian sources suggest the number may be twice as high. Numerous reports say Russian soldiers have targeted journalists to be attacked or kidnapped and sought to “terrorise” Ukrainian journalists caught behind Russian lines in the east to make them disseminate Russian propaganda or else remain silent. 

Russia’s information blockade may be illusory
The Kremlin’s propaganda messaging depends heavily on captive TV channels to dominate the information sphere. Senior station editors follow guidance on stories and government priorities via regular weekly meetings and frequent contacts with Kremlin officials. But even those state TV channels have proved vulnerable to break-ins by digital hackers and determined voices of dissent. On 9 May, while Mr. Putin presided over the Victory Day parade in Moscow, Russians using — a main cog in the state’s propaganda machine — saw a flood of graphic anti-war articles on screen. The material was posted by two journalists who also posted a personal message to site users. It said: “Don’t be silent! Fight back! You are not alone.”

In March Marina Ovsyannikova, a producer on Russia’s premier state TV station, Channel One, caused a sensation by interrupting a news bulletin by holding up a “No War” sign. The incident went viral online.

From abroad, Ukrainian social media channels have managed to reach mothers and other family members of Russian soldiers sent to fight in Ukraine, circumventing the virtual information blackout imposed by the authorities. Those soldiers’ mothers have seen images and in some cases recordings of interviews with their sons who speak of living through “hell”, of being coerced into going to war without adequate training and in some cases of being ordered to commit atrocities against civilians.

The war in Ukraine has spawned a massive explosion in open-source information which can easily be verified via investigative sites such as Bellingcat which flatly contradict the contrived and often absurd narratives coming out of Moscow.

So the idea that the Russian government can maintain an information blockade may be largely illusory. Younger Russians, too, have been used to a fair degree of digital freedom using VPNs and encrypted apps, and they stand to lose more than their elders from being confined to a Big Brother world.

Europe’s free speech record under scrutiny
RT has itself criticised the European Union for exercising “censorship” after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced an EU-wide ban on RT and Sputnik on 27 February, just three days after the Russian invasion. She justified the move as necessary to stop those Russian state propaganda channels from spreading “lies and toxic disinformation” across Europe. The ban came into effect on 2 March. RT later appealed to the EU Court of Justice to have it lifted.

About two weeks later the UK media regulator Ofcom revoked RT’s licence to broadcast in the UK, after investigating almost 30 alleged violations of broadcasting laws following the invasion, and concluding that the Russian channel was not a “fit and proper” operator of a licence to broadcast.

Eugeniya Dillendorf, UK correspondent of Novaya Gazeta, at far right

Eugeniya Dillendorf of Novaya Gazeta in London applauded the ban on RT because she said it had for years served as a “weapon” for the Kremlin by broadcasting state propaganda which had finally led to the invasion. Speaking at the launch of RSF’s 2022 Press Freedom Index on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, she cited Russian opinion polls showing that over half the population supported the war because they believed the version of events they saw every day on TV.

Others in Europe have argued that the forced silencing of Russian state media is a step in the wrong direction. Media law expert Dirk Voorhoof says the EU ban is seen as being in line with EU law because of the wide powers granted to the EU Council. However, he finds it concerning that the decision was taken by political or state authorities and not by judicial authorities or an approved independent media regulator.

In a joint statement on 4 May the top UN and regional freedom of expression experts expressed their concern that the EU’s rapid decision may have been a “disproportionate” response to disinformation, in breach of established international protections for speech. It had also, they said, been used by Russia as a pretext for additional closure of independent media outlets in that country.

Media capture a growing threat beyond Russia
State capture of the media is a stealthily growing threat to many parts of Europe. That is one of the striking conclusions of the hard-hitting report Defending Press Freedom in Times of Tension and Conflict published on 27 April by the 15 journalist and civil society organisations which are partners of the Council of Europe’s Platform for the safety of journalists. The Platform is a ground-breaking professional monitoring system of verified press freedom alerts covering the whole of Europe.

The partners report states that not only Russia but also Turkey and Azerbaijan have developed “extreme forms” of media capture, involving a combination of state authorities and private actors controlling the media and dominating the news agenda in a way that excludes alternative and dissenting voices, criminalises criticism of state authorities and makes it impossible for the media to hold the powerful to account. Elements of the same model, the report says, have also spread into Hungary, Poland and Slovenia.

On 16 March Russia suffered the ultimate sanction for the human rights violator of being excluded from membership of the Council of Europe, Europe’s convention-based system for protecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law. This landmark move followed a vote among the other 46 member states which found that Russia was in “flagrant violation” of the Statute of the Council of Europe over its invasion of Ukraine.

The case law of the Strasbourg court crucially accords the “broadest scope of protection” to freedom of expression and media freedom, because they give effect to a range of other fundamental rights, including the rights of assembly and association, access to justice, and the right to vote in free elections.

Bjorn Berge, CoE deputy secretary general

On 5 May, speaking at an international conference on democracy and human rights in Kristiansand, Norway, Bjorn Berge, Deputy Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, identified fact-based journalism and respect for freedom of expression as of paramount importance. Democracy crumbles, Berge said, when those things are replaced by disinformation, journalists and opposition figures are killed with impunity, and the “allure of the strongman” leads to a state of autocracy. It has happened before.