Governments must not “cherry pick” media outlets


Index on Censorship condemns the decision by the UK Foreign Office to deny accreditation to Russia’s RT and Sputnik news agencies.

The BBC reported on Monday that RT and Sputnik had been banned from attending a major global conference on media freedom currently being held in London. The FCO said the news groups were not granted accreditation because of their “active role” in spreading disinformation.

Jodie Ginsberg, Index chief executive, called on the foreign office to reconsider its decision. “Cherry-picking only the media that one government considers acceptable is the precisely the kind of action we condemn from authoritarian states. If media organisations spread lies and misinformation it is the job of a vibrant, pluralistic and independent media to challenge and expose those lies, not the job of governments to stifle the news outlets it dislikes.”

“We are extremely concerned about the message this decision sends about the UK’s genuine commitment to a free and independent media worldwide.”

Index on Censorship is attending the Global Media Freedom conference, which takes place July 10-11. Index currently monitors media freedom in five countries: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine, where it often calls out governments that block access to media representatives to control the narrative.

For more information or for interviews, contact Sean Gallagher on [email protected]

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Censorship gone viral: The cross-fertilisation of repression

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”85524″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]For around six decades after WWII ideas, laws and institutions supporting free expression spread across borders globally. Ever more people were liberated from stifling censorship and repression. But in the past decade that development has reversed.  

On April 12 Russian lawmakers in the State Duma completed the first reading of a new draft law on social media. Among other things the law requires social media platforms to remove illegal content within 24 hours or risk hefty fines. Sound familiar? If you think you’ve heard this story before it’s because the original draft was what Reporters Without Borders call a “copy-paste” version of the much criticized German Social Network law that went into effect earlier this year. But we can trace the origins back further.

In 2016 the EU-Commission and a number of big tech-firms including Facebook, Twitter and Google, agreed on a Code of Conduct under which these firms commit to removing illegal hate speech within 24 hours. In other words what happens in Brussels doesn’t stay in Brussels. It may spread to Berlin and end up in Moscow, transformed from a voluntary instrument aimed at defending Western democracies to a draconian law used to shore up a regime committed to disrupting Western democracies. 

US President Donald Trump’s crusade against “fake news” may also have had serious consequences for press freedom. Because of the First Amendment’s robust protection of free expression Trump is largely powerless to weaponise his war against the “fake news media” and “enemies of the people” that most others refer to as “independent media”.

Yet many other citizens of the world cannot rely on the same degree of legal protection from thin-skinned political leaders eager to filter news and information. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented the highest ever number of journalists imprisoned for false news worldwide. And while 21 such cases may not sound catastrophic the message these arrests and convictions send is alarming. And soon more may follow.  In April Malaysia criminalised the spread of “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false”, with up to six years in prison. Already a Danish citizen has been convicted to one month’s imprisonment for a harmless YouTube video, and presidential candidate Mahathir Mohammed is also being investigated. Kenya is going down the same path with a draconian bill criminalising “false” or “fictitious” information.  And while Robert Mueller is investigating whether Trump has been unduly influenced by Russian President Putin, it seems that Putin may well have been influenced by Trump. The above mentioned Russian draft social media law also includes an obligation to delete any “unverified publicly significant information presented as reliable information.” Taken into account the amount of pro-Kremlin propaganda espoused by Russian media such as RT and Sputnik, one can be certain that the definition of “unverified” will align closely with the interests of Putin and his cronies.

But even democracies have fallen for the temptation to define truth. France’s celebrated president Macron has promised to present a bill targeting false information by “to allow rapid blocking of the dissemination of fake news”. While the French initiative may be targeted at election periods it still does not accord well with a joint declaration issued by independent experts from international and regional organisations covering the UN, Europe, the Americans and Africa which stressed that “ general prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas, including ‘false news’ or ‘non-objective information’, are incompatible with international standards for restrictions on freedom of expression”.

However, illiberal measures also travel from East to West. In 2012 Russia adopted a law requiring NGOs receiving funds from abroad and involved in “political activities” – a nebulous and all-encompassing term – to register as “foreign agents”. The law is a thinly veiled attempt to delegitimise civil society organisations that may shed critical light on the policies of Putin’s regime. It has affected everything from human rights groups, LGBT-activists and environmental organisations, who must choose between being branded as something akin to enemies of the state or abandon their work in Russia. As such it has strong appeal to other politicians who don’t appreciate a vibrant civil society with its inherent ecosystem of dissent and potential for social and political mobilisation.

One such politician is Victor Orban, prime minister of Hungary’s increasingly illiberal government. In 2017 Orban’s government did its own copy paste job adopting a law requiring NGOs receiving funds from abroad to register as “foreign supported”. A move which should be seen in the light of Orban’s obsession with eliminating the influence of anything or anyone remotely associated with the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros whose Open Society Foundation funds organisations promoting liberal and progressive values.

The cross-fertilisation of censorship between regime types and continents is part of the explanation why press freedom has been in retreat for more than a decade. In its recent 2018 World Press Freedom Index Reporters Without Borders identified “growing animosity towards journalists. Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies”. This is something borne out by the litany of of media freedom violations reported to Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom, which monitors 43 countries. In just the last four years, MMF has logged over 4,200 incidents — a staggering array of curbs on the press that range from physical assault to online threats and murders that have engulfed journalists.

Alarmingly Europe – the heartland of global democracy – has seen the worst regional setbacks in RSF’s index. This development shows that sacrificing free speech to guard against creeping authoritarianism is more likely to embolden than to defeat the enemies of the open society.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”100463″ img_size=”full” onclick=”custom_link” img_link_target=”_blank” link=””][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]


A podcast on the history of free speech. 

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1526895517975-5ae07ad7-7137-1″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Sergey Smirnov: By banning Russian propaganda, the UK will help Putin in his campaign against press freedom

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This article by Sergey Smirnov, editor-in-chief of MediaZona, was originally published at openDemocracy Russia.

The poisoning of Sergey Skripal has led to a sharp deterioration in UK-Russia relations. For now, London’s official moves, such as deporting 23 Russian diplomats and searching planes inbound from Russia, look moderate. But Boris Johnson’s statement on 16 March was likely unexpected for Moscow. The British foreign minister came to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin sanctioned the attack on Skripal too quickly, though the Kremlin has, for now, merely commented that Johnson’s tone was “unacceptable”.

Immediately after the attack, the British parliament began discussing possible responses to Moscow. One of the first proposals was to stop the Russia Today TV channel, which is financed by the Russian government and is openly involved in propaganda, from broadcasting in the UK. And here it’s important to understand that British MPs have raised an important topic — one that’s painful not just for the Kremlin, but the whole of Russian society, including the opposition.

Banning the Russian propaganda channel in the UK will provoke a predictable reaction in Moscow. And London needs to understand beforehand what will happen (though the Kremlin hasn’t particularly hidden its intentions). First, Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, then Margarita Simonyan, head of RT, made it clear: all British media will be banned in response. This will concern first and foremost the BBC. It’s unclear what will happen to the work of other British media in Russia.

The Kremlin brought independent media in Russia under control long ago. If they managed to deal with television by the mid-2000s, then the internet didn’t really attract the attention of the Russian authorities for some time after. But in recent years the pressure has increased: independent media are often brought under control via oligarchs loyal to the Kremlin. For big internet publications, every year it gets harder to work. High-class independent journalists are fired if they choose not to betray their principles. Meanwhile, the authorities aren’t in a rush to pressure foreign media working in Russia.

Here, it’s important to explain the actions of the Russian authorities, which have been and will be demonised quite enough. The issue is that Vladimir Putin and his team don’t have — and have never had — a clearly worked-out programme to destroy democracy, including freedom of speech. As a rule, all their decisions are situative. Russian television was taken under control after Putin was sharply criticised by the oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky. The Russian president likes to act in response to any threats.

Take the events of the past six years. In 2011, hundreds of thousands of people, dissatisfied with the prospect of Putin returning to power, came onto the streets of Russian cities. The protest was suppressed, but the Russian authorities were seriously worried. They set themselves the task of makingeverything dependent on them, in order to ensure these scenes would never be repeated. The authorities undertook various actions: from formally liberalising the political sphere to passing repressive laws at the very moment when people stopped protesting.

Once again, it’s important to understand that the Kremlin’s reaction was a response to street protest. Although these laws may have been prepared beforehand, it seems they were thought up on the spot. Take the “Foreign Agents” law as an example — this law banned NGOs which take foreign funds from being involved in “political activity”. As is often the case in Russia, this law didn’t only touch on the work of human rights organisations, but many others, from environmental NGOs to, most recently, a diabetes society.

Why did they pass this law? Because the authorities believed that the 2011-2012 protests were organised from abroad. The mass protest started after election observers found large-scale falsifications at the parliamentary elections. The Golos election monitoring association prepared the observers. Golos received foreign funding. This is how the Kremlin put it together.

A similar situation happened with the Kremlin’s response to Ukraine. Putin was sure that he was simply responding to attempts by the west to take Ukraine further from Moscow’s influence — and, at the same time, breaking Putin’s agreements with Viktor Yanukovych. The 2012 ban on adopting Russian children (the “Dima Yakovlev” law) was also perceived as a response to hostile actions from the west.

Here, I’m trying to explain the Kremlin’s logic, which becomes even clearer in the case of Russia Today in the US. After RT was registered under the Foreign Agent Registration Act in November last year, Moscow started feverishly searching for return measures. The initial suggestions were more reminiscent of North Korea, e.g. banning all independent media, including social networks and even the internet. But then the Kremlin softened its position. All US media, which receive state financing, were declared foreign agents. Other US media have yet to fall under this law’s purview.

For me, there’s two reasons for this. The first, as I wrote above, is that the Kremlin is convinced that it’s defending itself from attacks. It has to respond. The second is that Moscow still leaves itself room for manoeuvre and bargaining. If you ban everything at once, there’s nothing to discuss further — and the Kremlin doesn’t want to end up isolated like North Korea. But the risk of isolation has risen after the Skripal poisoning, and the Russian authorities see this. They won’t make any sudden moves on their own.

This is what western states need to understand about the Kremlin’s behaviour. Currently, there’s no signs that Putin will change his traditional tactics after re-election. The Russian authorities will still monitor the domestic opposition and the actions of the west (and will respond to them). The west needs to understand that the Kremlin’s reaction vis-a-vis freedom of speech and human rights depends on their reaction. Not least of all because the Russian authorities love appealing to the west’s double standards. All actions in connection with RT are seen as the west’s hypocrisy in the field of freedom of speech.

By banning Russian propaganda, the western world helps Putin in his fight against freedom of speech.

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Lithuania: Press freedom groups decry proposed bans on Russian TV channels

A coalition of international press freedom organisations has hit out at a move to force some Russian “government-controlled” TV stations off Lithuanian airwaves.

Lithuania’s Committee on Radio and Television is reportedly considering, at the request of the government, to ban two Russian television channels from broadcasting to the Baltic country.

The channels in question — RTR Planeta and NTV Mir Lithuania — have in the past been handed down temporary suspensions of specific programs, according to the commission head Edmundas Vaitiekunas.

“If a ban is imposed on the whole channel due to repeated violations, I believe it should be longer … I believe it should be up to one year,” Vaitiekunas added in comments to the Baltic News Service earlier this year.

Russian state-owned media such as RT (formerly Russia Today), has come under fire for alleged distortion of facts in the their coverage, especially in relation to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

In a letter this week to the Lithuanian President, media freedom organisations including the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and the World Press Freedom Committee, argued that while they understand the objection to certain Russian broadcasts in “the current tense situation”, they consider a ban to be counterproductive and in contradiction of international free speech standards.

“If put into effect, bans on broadcasts across frontiers would almost inevitably be seized upon by the Russian authorities to justify bans on broadcasts by independent news media from other countries,” the letter states.

“It is an established conviction in free societies that the best answer to bad speech is more speech. We can see from the reaction to recent events in Moscow that there is a large public that is open to arguments, news reports and information to counteract official propaganda. The risk should not be taken to cut off such audiences from the free flow of information from outside their borders,” the group added.

This article was posted on Wednesday March 11 2015 at