by Jacob Mchangama
Friday, 4
March 2022
Analysis
11:02

Banning RT is a Soviet — not western — tactic

Free speech and access to information gives Europe a competitive advantage
by Jacob Mchangama
Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev attends a summit in Helsinki with his foreign minister, Andrey Gromyko, and an adviser, Konstantin Chernenko. Credit: Getty

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 In 2022 Glavlit has been replaced by the media regulator Roskomnadzor, which, in the past week alone has ordered media outlets to only use official Russian sources and banned words like “invasion”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.

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Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
7 months ago

I could not agree more with the proposition that banning RT is a Soviet tactic unbecoming of a free speech democracy.
We need to hear to voices of the other side – and we are free to draw our own conclusions from those voices.
We do not need our leaders to decide what’s good for us to hear and what’s not good for us – trust the public to listen to the propaganda and laugh at it … because mostly its obviously laughable.
We are not without sin – the ‘western’ propaganda before the second Gulf war is a prime example of distorted facts put out by our own government(s) … we should be able to listen to RT, Al Jazeera et al and draw our own conclusions on the balance of truth.

Last edited 7 months ago by Andrew Wise
Iris C
Iris C
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Wise

One of the downsides for the West in banning RT is that “Today” and “Sky” have included some differing viewpoints on the Ukrainian situation.
“Today” had an American Professor supporting the Russian claim that NATO had gone back on agreements which precluded them expanding into former Soviet states which bordered on Russia, and “Sky” showed us satellite images of fighting that countered some of the claims made on our media outlets, One must assume that this will be available for scrutiny by the International Court..

Friedrich Tellberg
Friedrich Tellberg
7 months ago

I totally agree. Censorship is a sign of weakness. I feel little sympathy for RT or Sputnik, but I would not deny them the right to publish whatever they want. If it is propaganda, it will soon be clear. Some people already think that the EU or the UK has something to hide in this war.
Besides, what’s the point? You can easily read Izvestia or some other Russian newspaper online (all under close controll of the Russian government) with google translate (which is remarkably good in translating shallow, standardised articles). Which is no danger to us, because even from the articles themselves it is obvious that information is being manipulated or distorted. Even a quick look around in Russian news channel will show you that the lack of diversity and the “political correctness” in line with the regime is far, far worse than here.
Unless you want to block everything all the time. And then the “cure” is much worse than the disease.
So a ban is wrong and ineffective, and probably even counterproductive.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
7 months ago

Well said and excellent analysis.

Andrea X
Andrea X
7 months ago

What worry about RT, when you have FB or Twitter?

Adam Bacon
Adam Bacon
7 months ago

Now we’ve had Russian sourced propaganda banned we’ll have to make do with the variety we get from our own mainstream media sources…

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
7 months ago

RT is so bad that it is effectively pro-west.

Kevin Casey
Kevin Casey
7 months ago

“ 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.”
Empty rhetoric…. Well in light of todays Big Tech censorship of “news” they were probably spot on

Su Mac
Su Mac
7 months ago

So the West bans RT and it is somehow still Russia’s fault ‘cos the Soviets would have done it too?
This writer needs to come out from under a rock and look honestly at censorship rampant across the monolithic corporate media and tech media during the pandemic.

Jeffrey Chongsathien
Jeffrey Chongsathien
6 months ago

Who ever said governments of the West are Western anymore? They’re CCP-alikes.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago

Would RT make money from being shown in western nations, from adverting, fees and the like?

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

What brands would want to be associated with Russia currently?