By William Horsley, CFOM International Director
February 24 was a fateful day for world peace as President Putin staked his own and Russia’s future on an unprovoked military assault against the country’s neighbour and rejected the “rules-based international order” in the most public way possible. At a stroke he ensured Russia’s long-term isolation and completed Russia’s jagged journey into totalitarianism. That might in fact have been his goal as much as any territorial ambitions in Ukraine or beyond. For now at least, Putin has absolute control over the separate “Russian world” – Ruskiy mir — of his dreams.
Less noticed but in its way equally far-reaching, a week later Mr Putin rushed to put in place a doomsday mechanism that was meant to deliver for him an “information monopoly” to match the virtual monopoly on political and official power he already wielded. On 4 March Putin got unanimous approval in the Duma for a law which ended all pretence of freedom of expression and free media inside Russia.
The law made it a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail to call the euphemistically-called “special military operation” in Ukraine by its real name – an invasion — or to “disrespect” the armed forces. Very soon the remaining independent media like the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, TV Rain and Echo of Moscow radio station were closed down. International media which had reported out of Moscow throughout the Cold War quit in a hurry for fear of ending up in a Russian jail. Russian people’s access to foreign media was largely blocked and over 2000 websites were reportedly taken down.
Margarita Simonyan, the editorial head of Russia’s international state broadcaster RT, has enthusiastically backed government censorship of media, saying “No great nation can exist without control over information”.
The long-established core principles of professional journalism revolve around accuracy, truthfulness, fair treatment and rejection of state interference in editorial decisions.
With Mr Putin’s determination to conceal the truth about the invasion of Ukraine, Russia morphed from an authoritarian society where open dissent was dangerous but possible into a fully dystopian state with uncanny similarities to the one portrayed by George Orwell in his novel 1984. The book was published in 1949 as a searing satire on the totalitarian worlds of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.
Big Brother is watching you now
The hallmark of this Orwellian condition is the compulsory debasement and abuse of the language using official falsehoods and distortions which turn the truth on its head. Typically, they also vilify “enemies of the state” at home and abroad as legitimate targets of public hostility. Announcing the new draconian “fake news” law, Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin declared: “This law will force very tough punishment on those who lie about Russia’s armed forces”.
The irony of that statement was complete. From that moment it actually became a crime in Russia to speak any part of the truth about the war in Ukraine, or about the mounting evidence of disastrous errors, massive casualties and war crimes allegedly committed by the Russian army in Ukraine. Soviet-era censorship was back, using the timeless weapons of totalitarianism: fear, repression, and suppression of free speech.
The tropes of 1984 can now be discerned in Russia for real. Newspeak exists in the servile output of state-managed TV, spouting lies shamelessly. Big Brother is there in the exaggerated cult of personality of the undisputed leader; and the Ministry of Truth in the form of the array of laws criminalising truth-telling about the past and the present. The whole nightmarish construct is supported by the pre-existing and ubiquitous state controls of Russia’s judicial system and parliament whose task is to punish and deter any who still dare to protest or expose corruption.
In the book 1984 ‘the party’ has absolute powers to decide that black is white and that “two plus two equals five”. In the Kremlin’s make-believe world, the Ukrainian army is bombarding its own cities, Russia is defending itself against a phantom attack by NATO forces, and Israel is supporting neo-Nazis in Kyiv.
In the ten weeks since the invasion began, the exodus of independent-minded journalists and others has become a flood. Inside Russia the tally of organisations and persons labelled as “foreign agents” and subject to extra scrutiny and public opprobrium has surpassed 400. Among them, officials announced last week, is Ekaterina Schulmann, a former member of the presidential Human Rights Council and well-known political scientist widely respected for her professional integrity.
Speaking to the New York Times in Berlin where she currently has an academic fellowship, Professor Schulmann observed: “Shortly it will become impossible to work in my field in Russia”. That indeed seems to be the intention. Vladimir Putin has branded all those who advocate western values as “scum and traitors”. His spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said the “cleansing” would happen spontaneously as disloyal Russians moved abroad.
Since April Novaya Gazeta has been publishing a legally separate overseas edition, Novaya Gazeta Europe. It is staffed by former Novaya Gazeta journalists who have quit Russia, and aims to reach both Russian and international readers beyond the reach of Russia censors.
Russia’s “information blockade” may be illusory
The Kremlin’s propaganda messaging has long depended on captive TV channels to dominate the information sphere. But even they are vulnerable in the age of digital hackers and determined voices of dissent. On 9 May, just as Mr Putin presided over the Victory Day parade in Moscow, Russians who use Lenta.ru, which is a regular part of the state’s propaganda machine, instead saw graphic anti-war articles that popped up on screen. They were posted by two journalists who also posted a message to users of the site saying “Don’t be silent! Fight back! You are not alone.”
In March Marina Ovsyannikova, a producer on Russia’s premier state TV station, Channel One, caused a sensation by interrupting a news bulletin with a “No War” sign. The incident went viral online.
And Ukrainian social media channels have succeeded in reaching countless mothers and other family members of Russian soldiers sent to fight in Ukraine, circumventing the near information blackout imposed by the Russian authorities. Those mothers have seen images and in some cases watched recordings of interviews with their sons who speak of living through “hell” after being coerced into being sent to war without proper training and being ordered to commit atrocities against civilians.
The war in Ukraine has spawned a massive explosion in open-source information which can easily be verified via investigative sites such as Bellingcat which flatly contradict the contrived and often absurd narratives coming out of Moscow.
So the idea that the Russian government can maintain an information blockade may be largely illusory. Younger Russians, too, have been used to a fair degree of digital freedom using VPNs and encrypted apps, and they stand to lose more than their elders from being confined to a Big Brother world.
Europe’s free speech record under scrutiny
RT has itself criticised the European Union for exercising “censorship” after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced an EU-wide ban on RT and Sputnik on 27 February, just three days after the Russian invasion. She justified the move as necessary to stop those Russian state propaganda channels from spreading “lies and toxic disinformation” across Europe. The ban came into effect on 2 March. RT later appealed to the EU Court of Justice to have it lifted.
About two weeks later the UK media regulator Ofcom revoked RT’s licence to broadcast in the UK, after investigating almost 30 alleged violations of broadcasting laws following the invasion, and concluding that the Russian channel was not a “fit and proper” operator of a licence to broadcast.
Eugeniya Dillendorf of Novaya Gazeta in London applauded the ban on RT because she said it had for years served as a “weapon” for the Kremlin by broadcasting state which had finally led to the war in Ukraine. Speaking at the launch of RSF’s 2022 Press Freedom Index on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, she cited Russian opinion polls showing that over half the population supported the war because they believed what the version of events they saw on TV.
Others in Europe have argued that the forced silencing of Russian state media is a step in the wrong direction. Media law expert Dirk Voorhoof says the EU ban is seen as being in line with EU law because of the wide powers granted to the EU Council. However, he finds it concerning that the decision was taken by political or state authorities and not by judicial authorities or an approved independent media regulator.
In a joint statement on 4 May the top UN and regional freedom of expression experts voiced their concern that the EU’s rapid decision may has been a “disproportionate” response to disinformation in breach of established international protections for speech. It had also, they said, been used by Russia as a pretext for additional closure of independent media outlets in that country.
Media capture a growing threat across Europe
State capture of the media is a stealthily growing threat to many parts of Europe. That is the most striking conclusion of the hard-hitting report “Defending Press Freedom in Times of Tension and Conflict” published on 27 April by the 15 journalists’ and civil society organisations which are partners of the Council of Europe’s Platform for the safety of journalists. The Platform is the ground-breaking and Europe-wide monitoring system of press freedom alerts covering the whole of Europe.
The partners’ report states that not only Russia but also Turkey and Azerbaijan have developed extreme forms of media capture, involving a combination of state authorities and private actors controlling the media and dominating the news agenda in a way that excludes alternative and dissenting voices, criminalises criticism of the authorities and makes it impossible for the media to hold the powerful to account. Elements of this model, the Report says, have also spread into Hungary, Poland and Slovenia.
On 16 March Russia suffered the ultimate sanction for the human rights violator of being excluded from membership of the Council of Europe, which with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights, after it was found in “flagrant violation” of the Statute of the Council of Europe over its invasion of Ukraine.
The case law of the Strasbourg court crucially accords the “broadest scope of protection” to freedom of expression and media freedom, because they give effect to a range of other fundamental rights, including the rights of assembly and association, access to justice, and the right to vote in free elections.
On 5 May, speaking at an international conference on democracy and human rights in Kristiansand, Norway, Bjorn Berge, Deputy Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, identified fact-based journalism and respect for freedom of expression as of paramount importance. Democracy crumbles, he said, when those are replaced by disinformation, journalists and opposition figures are killed with impunity, and the “allure of the strongman” leads to a state of autocracy. It has happened before.