A report to be presented at the next session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) will question the decision by the EU to ban Russian media outlets. Written by Irene Khan, the Special Rapporteur for press freedom, the HRC initially requested the report to assess the growing challenges journalists face in the digital age, the scourge of disinformation, and the increasingly physical threats reporters face today. But the war in Ukraine has inserted itself into the conversation, and Khan’s report will now also deal with issues of censorship and limits on the freedom of information.
In early March, in a highly controversial decision, the EU decided to ban Sputnik and RT, formerly Russia Today. It should be noted that while Switzerland agreed to follow the EU’s economic sanctions—a gesture seen as compromising its neutrality—it balked at the Russian media ban. In early May, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen upped the ante by telling EU lawmakers in Strasbourg that a further three state-owned Russian broadcasters—RTR Planeta, Russia 24, and TV Centre—would also be targeted. “They will not be allowed to distribute their content anymore in the European Union, in whatever shape or form, be it on cable, via satellite, on the internet, or via smartphone apps,” she said.
Calling the TV channels “mouthpieces that aggressively amplify Putin’s lies and propaganda,” she justified the EU’s move by saying that the EU “should not give them a stage anymore to spread these lies.”
The extension of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate to examine the Russian situation and her misgivings about Brussels’ media ban have not passed without raising some eyebrows here. It is expected that the EU will take the floor to defend its position.
In her report, Irene Khan addresses the EU position directly: “In late February 2022, the European Commission banned two media outlets owned and controlled by the Russian Federation from broadcasting in the European Union on the grounds that they spread disinformation and propaganda and so constituted a threat to public order and security.” She goes on to say that in her view, “the total ban of a media outlet is a severe restriction of freedom of expression.”
“While international law permits restriction of freedom of expression to protect public order and national security, it requires the measure to be strictly necessary and proportionate. As disinformation can be addressed without banning media outlets, there is concern about the proportionality of the response of the European Union,” she says.
The UN Special Rapporteur is not alone in questioning Brussels’ decision. Last month, Ricardo Gutiérrez, General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), issued a strong statement: “We believe the EU has no right to grant or withdraw broadcasting licenses. Such decisions are of the exclusive competence of the states. In our liberal democracies, independent regulators, never the government, are allowed to manage the allocation of licenses. The EU’s decision is a complete break with these democratic guarantees. For the first time in modern history, Western European governments are banning media,” he said.
Gutiérrez argues that “total closure of a media outlet does not seem to me to be the best way to combat disinformation or propaganda. This act of censorship can have a counterproductive effect on the citizens who follow the banned media. In our opinion, it is always better to counteract the disinformation of propagandist or allegedly propagandist media by exposing their factual errors or bad journalism, demonstrating their lack of financial or operational independence, and highlighting their loyalty to government interests and their disregard for the public interest.”
The EFJ suggested other measures to deal with the issue: increasing support for independent journalism, strengthening the independence of editorial offices, reinforcing the social status of journalists, promoting professional ethics through independent press councils, encouraging media pluralism, promoting media literacy for all, and increasing the transparency of those in power.
“The real antidote to disinformation is not the banning of the media, but the promotion of a vibrant, pluralistic, professional, ethical and viable media ecosystem, totally independent of those in power,” said Gutiérrez.
However, Khan is also concerned about the situation in Russia, where referring to the conflict in Ukraine using the term “war” is considered a crime.
“The ‘fake war news’ law led Russian media outlets to self-censor their reporting on the situation in Ukraine. Some independent outlets closed down or suspended their activities due to the increased restrictions on reporting. Fearing for the safety of their staff, several international media outlets announced their intention to suspend reporting from Moscow or were blocked partially or fully from reporting by the Russian authorities.” She writes that “this total information blackout is one in a series of measures taken by the authorities to restrict media freedom in the Russian Federation.”
Khan’s report states that “any restriction of freedom of expression should adhere strictly to the requirements of legality, necessity, proportionality, and legitimate aim set out in article 19 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and acknowledge the public interest role of journalists.”
Furthermore, “States should refrain from compelling digital companies to restrict or remove journalistic content without judicial due process. As part of transparency reporting, digital companies should inform the public and the media about content restrictions requested by States,” she suggests.
The report concludes that media freedom and the safety of journalists are in dangerous decline in almost every region of the world. The present report to the Human Rights Council is a call for urgent action to reverse that trend. The report has been informed by written contributions from 16 states, 29 civil society organizations—including a consortium of 40 partners, scholars and journalists—and four international organizations, as well as consultations with various stakeholders.
The 50th session of the Human Rights Council will start on June 12.