March 4, 2022 - 11:02am

In 1922, the USSR established the General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press (known as Glavlit) to weed out “propaganda against the Soviet Union” that “stirred up public opinion through false information”. The mission of Glavlit reflected Lenin’s view that the press was “no less dangerous than bombs and machine-guns” and that its proper role was to serve as “a collective propagandist [and] agitator” for Bolshevik ideas.

Like Lenin and Stalin before him, Vladimir Putin is obsessed with controlling the public sphere through censorship and propaganda. In 2022 Glavlit has been replaced by the media regulator Roskomnadzor, which, in the past week alone has ordered media outlets to only use official Russian sources and banned words like “invasion” and “war” when reporting on events in Ukraine. It has also blocked online access to media outlets for “disseminating false information”, a crime which has seen at least ten media outlets facing legal sanctions. In addition, Russia is seeking to spread its propaganda globally through outlets such as state sponsored broadcasters like RT and Sputnik.

Faced with this development the European Commission is moving forward with an EU-wide total ban on RT and Sputnik — both online and offline —  ​while a similar move in the UK has been proposed by Labour leader Keir Starmer. According to Ursula Van Der Leyen the EU´s “unprecedented” initiative is needed to “ban [Russian] toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe”.

While sanctions targeting Russian oligarchs and the kleptocratic infrastructure of Russia’s economy should be expanded, European democracies should be careful not to copy and paste Putin’s censorship tactics. Once the centralised command and control of media freedom in 27 democracies based on inherently vague definitions of “propaganda” and “disinformation” ​has been established, the danger is that it will almost inevitably be used to target other forms of undesirable information in the future.

Western democracies even have a compelling historical precedent to rely on when it comes to defending free speech. In 1975 the Helsinki Final Act was signed by thirty-five countries under the auspices of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Helsinki Act’s primary ambition was to ease Cold War tensions, but Western democracies — led by the European Community — persuaded the Soviet Bloc to accept the inclusion of human rights provisions. The agreement called for improving the “Circulation of, Access to, and Exchange of Information”. The human rights language did not appeal to communist states who were already jamming the radio signals of Western radio stations like BBC and Radio Free Europe. In language eerily similar to that now used by European democracies, Soviet officials emphasised that they would never tolerate “the dissemination of…racism, fascism, the cult of violence, hostility among peoples and false slanderous propaganda.” But ultimately, the Soviet bloc swallowed the human rights concessions, which they viewed as little more than empty rhetoric.

Yet through newspaper reports, word of mouth, underground “samizdat” publishers, and Western radio broadcasts, Central and Eastern Europeans quickly learned about the new rights that their governments had just solemnly promised to respect. And among the rights guaranteed by the Helsinki Final Act, perhaps none was more important than freedom of expression. Hence, the creation of the “Helsinki Effect” — where international norms substantially affect domestic political change — contributed to ending the Cold War as such.

The abject failure of Russian propaganda, the resilience of the Western public sphere and the historical lessons of the Helsinki Final Act, should convince European democracies that free speech and access to information is a competitive advantage, not a disability, when it comes to fighting information wars against Kremlin.

Jacob Mchangama is the executive director of the Copenhagen based think tank Justitia and author of Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media, publishing 17th March