Why a push to shut out Russian state media would be problematic for free speech and democracy
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia shut out media based in the United States and allied countries. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Radio Free Europe, Deutsche Welle, BBC and other news sources are no longer legally available there. A self-imposed digital iron curtain has descended on Europe, reinforced in part by Russia’s draconian new law criminalizing the dissemination of “false information” about the Ukraine conflict.
But the closing of the information space was not unilateral. The European Union has banned Russian state media in Europe, and US companies have made it more difficult to access such media in the United States, narrowing the range of news sources available to the public here in the West.
In my opinion, these voluntary and legal exclusions from Russian state media are unnecessary and harmful attempts to mobilize society for the wartime emergency in Ukraine. These restrictions must be lifted as soon as possible and not reimposed or extended to other state-supported media, except perhaps in the most serious circumstances of actual war and manifestly unjustified aggression. These exclusions limit the worldview available to the American public and policymakers and, through a well-understood and predictable process, they lead to the demonization and silencing of valuable internal critics whose insights could help improve the effectiveness of foreign policies. and national. Politics. It would be a mistake to continue on such a dangerous and counterproductive path.
The new American restrictions
Following Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, several US companies banned Russian state media from their systems. Apple has removed the RT News app from its App Store. YouTube has blocked the RT news channel. DirecTV has dropped RT America, which led the US-based 24-hour Russian English-language news channel to shut down operations.
Senator Mark Warner sent a public letter to CEOs of tech companies urging them “to prevent misuse of their platforms by Russia and Russia-related entities.” But companies were free to ignore this pressure from policymakers – and some did. Facebook still allows RT to operate on its US platform while continuing to label it a “Russian state-controlled media”. Twitter too permit RT on its platform, with a disclaimer that the account is “Russian state-affiliated media”. Additionally, RT’s website is always easily accessible from any computer or mobile device in the United States.
The result of this private sector management of their own systems is that people in the United States who want to get Russia’s perspective on the current Ukraine crisis, or anything else, have a number of heavier avenues , but still relatively easy, to access.
The European overreaction
On the other hand, the European Union reacted with much more force. On March 2, the Council of Europe published an amendment to its 2014 Russia sanctions package banning Russian state media RT and Sputnik in Europe.
This prohibition is extraordinarily sweeping and applies to “the transmission or distribution by any means such as cable, satellite, IPTV, Internet service providers, Internet video-sharing platforms or applications, which whether new or pre-installed”. In a follow-up clarification, European Union officials said the order applies to search results and posts by individuals who “reproduce” content from RT or Sputnik on any platform. form of social media.
Part of the stated basis for blocking Russian state media organizations is that they are state-controlled and engage in propaganda to serve Russian foreign policy goals. But these organizations have always been controlled by the state and have always echoed the propaganda of the Russian government. The new element is the urgency of war in Ukraine, where Russian propaganda could help its war effort by undermining the domestic will to fight in Europe and Ukraine. This suggests that the legal ban on RT only makes sense as a huge exception to an open background policy.
European officials are expected to clarify that his legal ban on Russian state media is a rare exception, justified in their view only by the extreme circumstances of undeniable aggression and real war in Ukraine. In a move in that direction, an unnamed EU official said, “This is not a normal situation, and that’s what makes this case so different from any other restriction on freedom of information.” To be clear, I think the European ban is an overreaction even in times of war, but now that it’s done it’s vital to contain it and prevent it becoming a precedent for further bans media legal.
But there is a risk that Europe will broaden its approach to exclusion instead of treating it as a single measure justified, if at all, only by rare circumstances of war. Top EU diplomat Josep Borrell and the European Parliament are considering a new mechanism that would allow the EU to sanction government-backed disinformation actors. MEP Sandra Kalniete, who is leading the effort, suggested it would target “Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes…”. It seems like an alarming move to institutionalize a system to exclude all state media of foreign adversaries from the European information space.
The danger ahead for the United States
In 2020, Laura Rosenberger, now a member of the National Security Council (formerly director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund) urged the United States to “work systematically with the private sector and the civil society” to meet the challenges of information competition with Russia and China.
Refining the system of public-private coordination on national security issues, as Rosenberger suggests, is a laudable move. But expanding it to include coordination between national security agencies and private media and technology companies to decouple the United States from hostile state media sources would pose great dangers to an open society.
An embargo on sources of information under the control of foreign adversaries – even if organized by mutual agreement with national security agencies rather than coercion – would create and maintain harmful information black holes. It could even be an unconstitutional state action. It would certainly limit knowledge of global developments at a crucial time when the American public and policymakers need the clearest possible picture of the rest of the world, including Russia and China. And that involves understanding how these countries see themselves, how they perceive the United States and its allies, and their vision of their own place in the international community. Seeing them only through the national media filter is almost certainly a recipe for misunderstood and ill-informed decisions.
Closing state media to foreign adversaries also makes it easier to treat domestic critics of US policy as agents of a hostile power who amplify enemy arguments. If it is legitimate to silence state media as agents of foreign propaganda because of what they say, commentators and policy makers will likely think it must be legitimate to label anyone who says the same as also being an agent of a foreign power.
But it is a mistake. Inside critics should be encouraged to engage in constructive, fact-based criticism of US policies at home and abroad. These criticisms will often resemble criticisms of foreign adversaries since these adversaries are adept at pointing out weaknesses in the American system. But it is essential not to repeat the redbaiting mistakes of the first Cold War by silencing or dismissing the analyzes and proposals of internal critics because of this similarity.
The example of international relations specialist John Mearsheimer illustrates the risks. He is perhaps the main representative of the idea that the American policy of NATO enlargement has contributed significantly to the current crisis in Ukraine. Although his views have not been censored in the West, the warning signs of redbaiting are beginning. Respected commentator Adam Tooze describes how Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Anne Appelbaum accused Mearsheimer of providing useful narrative to the Kremlin, and how students at Mearsheimer’s employer – the University of Chicago – published a letter accusing him of being on the Russian payroll.
Mearsheimer is so well established that these minor incidents will not tarnish his reputation. Indeed, he is enjoying a rare moment of internet fame, as his 2015 YouTube speech on Ukraine has received 24 million views to date. While he’s not oppressed or excluded at all, other less established critics might not be as resilient. These examples illustrate a dangerous trend that policy makers and commentators should reject: a style of debate and discussion which, while not at all the same as government suppression of speech, creates an atmosphere of fear that can silence the expression of opinions that disagree with the political government. This dangerous trend is legitimized by a coordinated policy of exclusion from foreign state media.
For generations, American communications policy has been based on the idea, articulated in the Associated Press Supreme Court decision of 1945, that “the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the public welfare”. Rather than organized repression and redbaiting, this policy of transparency, openness, and the free flow of information continues to be America’s best weapon in the fight against foreign adversaries.
Apple, Facebook, and Google are general, unrestricted donors to the Brookings Institution. The findings, interpretations and conclusions published in this article are solely those of the author and are not influenced by any donation.