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RTR Planeta, a Russian language channel broadcasting in Lithuania, has repeatedly run into conflict with the country’s television regulator.
In December, the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission ordered RTR Planeta to be moved to paid TV packages after it broadcast material that the agency said instigated racial hatred and warfare. The programme in question was the 29 November episode of Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, which discussed the downing of a Russian plane by the Turkish airforce.
Russian MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who was a guest on the programme, said Turkish people were “a nation of wild barbarians,” and said that Turkey should be “brought to its knees” through military attacks.
“We need an air raid on any part of Turkey (…), the Turkish army must be destroyed,” said Zhirinovsky.
This is the second time the programme has prompted the regulator to take action. In April 2015, RTR Planeta was blocked from broadcasting for three months for allegedly “inciting discord and warmongering” over the conflict in Ukraine.
The content in question included a tirade against the Baltic countries by ultra-nationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky on the Sunday Evening With Vladimir Solovjev programme. Zhirinovsky said that Poland and the Baltic states would be “wiped out” should a war break out between Russia and NATO.
Although Lithuanian politicians and media experts agreed on the inflammatory nature of RTR Planeta content, especially the comments made by Zhirinovsky, some media pundits have expressed doubt over the decision to shut the channel down for three months. It resumed broadcasting on 13 July 2015.
In April, Audris Matonis, news service director at Lithuania’s national LRT broadcaster, rejected criticism that the ban was excessive and amounted to censorship. He insisted that “all should realise that what they’re advocating is non-compliance with Lithuanian law”.
But Gintautas Mazeikis, director of the Political Theory Department at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, took issue when speaking to Delfi.lt. “Do we want and seek diplomatic and other means to influence Russian channels, or are we only trying to co-operate with cable TV service providers so they change their packages and broadcast more Polish or Ukrainian TV?” he said. “Do we want to explain and encourage critical thinking among speakers of Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian and Polish who live in Lithuania?”
Aidas Puklevičius, a journalist and author, insisted that the broadcast ban may not have been the best decision and reasoned that the situation should improve once the generation of people who speak only Russian as a foreign language gives way to one which is more fluent in English.
“Russia will then lose its only vehicle for exporting soft power, something it has very little of,” Puklevičius said to Delfi.it. “Russia did not invent Pepsi Cola, nor jeans, nor Hollywood. Russia’s only strength is its ability to play on Soviet nostalgia.”
Media professionals in Lithuania have increasingly found themselves taking sides in the Ukraine conflict.
“Unfortunately, Russia-Ukraine warfare has become part of journalism in Lithuania and not surprisingly, all the Lithuanian news, except for some reports on the State Lithuanian TV, are concerned with the same issue: how atrocious the Kremlin-backed Russian insurgents are and how courageous the Ukrainians are,” a Lithuanian journalist, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, told Index on Censorship. “Why is it happening? In any warfare, you’d expect analysis and different points of view, but none of it could be found on Lithuanian TV.”
The journalist said he had stopped watching Lithuanian TV news and has switched to German TV channels which air many different views on the conflict.
In January 2015, Dainius Radzevicius, the chairman of Lithuania’s Union of Journalists, wrote a commentary piece in which he said “polarisation of the media is something we all have to admit is happening, and it has been very palpable for the last couple of years not only in the Lithuanian media but elsewhere too”.
Radzevicius said the problem began as a result of economic conditions, but it is fueled by the geopolitical situation, including the conflict in Ukraine.
“Against this backdrop, we may now have less of a variety of opinions on the radio waves, the TV screens or the newspaper pages; but it is necessary to resist the powerful and obtrusive propaganda coming from the East, therefore, what I call our ‘white propaganda’ is necessary during the times,” he said in the piece.
Mapping Media Freedom
Lithuania has banned a Russian TV channel for “inciting discord, warmongering [and] spreading disinformation” according to the country’s media regulator.
RTR Planeta, the international broadcasting service for the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), a powerful state run media empire that operates more than a dozen TV channels and radio stations, will be taken off the air after alleged “incitements to hatred” during the Sunday Evening With Vladimir Solovjev program.
“This program has repeatedly spread such information, therefore its broadcast was suspended for three months,” Birute Kersiene, a spokesperson for the Radio and Television Commission of Lithuania told AFP.
According to Euro News, which is part-owned by RTR Planeta’s parent company, VGTRK, one bone of contention was the continued presence of firebrand, ultra-nationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky who is know for his inflammatory statements on Solovjev’s show.
Last year he was, according to Lithuanian media reports, quoted in an interview with Rossiya 24 as saying: “The Baltic States, Poland – they are doomed. They will be swept away. Nothing will remain there. They should sober up, the leaders of these dwarf nations … Eastern European countries are exposing themselves to, shall I say, the danger of complete annihilation.”
VGTRK is run by one Oleg Dobrodeev, a staunch Putin ally who was appointed chairman in 2000, the same year Putin came to power. “Dobrodeev was one of the founding members of the independent NTV Channel, but under Putin drastically changed his attitude to independent television in Russia,” wrote Oleg Panfilov, a dissident Russian journalist in his 2005 paper titled Putin and the Press: The Revival of Soviet-style Propaganda for London based think tank The Foreign Policy Centre. “Dobrodeev started to consolidate all state provincial television and radio companies, thus creating a massive and powerful propaganda network.”
The ban is the latest move in a rapidly cooling media environment in the Baltic States, where significant numbers of Russian speakers live and whom get most of their news from Russian sources. To counter what they see as pro-Russian propaganda, the three countries – with the help of the European Union – have vowed to set up supposedly impartial Russian language TV stations.
Whilst Russia has frequently been accused by international media watchdogs for its restrictions on the freedom of the press, governments from the Baltic states have responded by threatening suspensions of TV stations and banning prominent pro-Russian journalists, politicians and even singers from entering their borders.
On 9 March a coalition of press freedom groups including the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and the World Press Freedom Committee decried the potential banning of Russian language TV stations in Lithuania. “While we do understand that the objection to their broadcasts is that in the current tense situation in Eastern Europe they are seen as propagandistic and polemical, we view their banning as the wrong approach to counteracting their messages,” they wrote in a letter to Lithuania’s president. “Not only is this in contradiction with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international free speech standards, but we also consider such bans to be counterproductive.”
If any ban was put into effect, the letter continued, they “would almost inevitably be seized upon by the Russian authorities to justify bans on broadcasts by independent news media from other countries”.
But the RTR Planeta ban was confirmed anyway, causing further complications as the station is registered in Sweden, an EU state. The EU has strict rules regulating broadcast freedoms.
When contacted by the Index on Censorship before the ban was announced, the Radio and Television Commission of Lithuania stated that they had contacted their Swedish counterparts about RTR Planeta and reaffirmed their belief that RTR Planeta had broken EU broadcasting rules.
While Article 3 of the EU’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive strictly prohibits the banning of retransmitted programmes, Lithuania’s regulator pointed to Article 6, which states that EU countries must ensure no programmes “contain any incitement to hatred based on race, sex, religion or nationality.”
“It is the first time in the history of the European Union that a regulatory body has taken the decision to take the whole channel completely off-air,” the chairman of Lithuania’s media regulator, Edmundas Vaitiekunas, told Euro News. “Maybe someone will argue over the subtleties of the case, but we think that we addressed all the legal criteria.”
The ban is due to come into effect on 13 April.