It was a poignant moment. On March 3, the entire staff of Dozhd, a Russian television channel, resigned live on-air after declaring “no to war”. They resigned after the Russian government passed a law that made it impossible to cover the war without inviting censorship and prison sentences up to 15 years.
We, the audience, were left with a video of the Swan Lake ballet, the same video that was played on state-run television channels in Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Then came the news that the board of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, or the Echo of Moscow, had decided to go off the air after coming under pressure for its coverage of the war in Ukraine. The radio station has featured interviews with Ukrainian journalists who described the horrors of Russia’s military operations.
‘The Russian viewpoint’
These Russian journalists were applauded for their courage and rightly so. But there was another set of journalists who have been equally courageous, perhaps even more so. They work for the Kremlin-backed RT, formerly known as Russia Today.
Many of them are from Europe, Britain and the United States. They continue to work for RT despite the ban on the channel by the United States and the European countries. The European Union justified the move by arguing that the channel broadcast “systematic information manipulation and disinformation”.
The ban on RT brings to the fore many questions that are at the core of journalist ethics and the idea that we, the audience, have a right to listen to both sides of the story. The journalists working at RT do not necessarily support the war or even have loyalty to Putin, but they do think it is important to get the Russian viewpoint out in the world.
Veteran war correspondent, Paula Slier, the Middle East Bureau Chief for RT and the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Newshound Media International, has written about her stand on why the ban on the channel is not justified, even though a boycott may be:
“Every channel has a point of view; all media are subjective. At least RT is upfront and honest about it. Twitter was the only platform that kept my account but flagged it as being part of ‘Russian state-affiliated media’. I commend that because it’s true. Neither I nor RT have ever hidden the fact that the channel represents the Russian government’s point of view. I believe there’s value in hearing the government’s perspective and justification for this war.
“I’m not writing this to defend Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in the Ukraine. Truthfully, I’m conflicted. Working for RT doesn’t mean I unequivocally support Putin and think Russia’s in the right in this conflict.”
Slier said that she has always believed that her duty as a journalist is to report what she sees and hears with integrity. She explained that she was writing the article because she supported media plurality.
“I believe it’s useful for western audiences to understand what Russians are thinking, especially in their own language,” she wrote. “RT used to broadcast in English, German, Spanish, French, Arabic and Russian. If nothing else, to quote from the famous Chinese general and military strategist, Sun Tzu: know your enemy.”
The ban on RT has been criticised by several journalists working for the Western media. For instance, Jamie Wiseman, a European Advocacy Officer at the Vienna-based International Press Institute, has written that the ban does not comply with international law:
“While the EU’s decision to ban RT and [state-backed media outlet] Sputnik through sanctions adopted by the Council was well-intentioned, this does not change the fundamental principle that these decisions should have been made by national watchdogs independent from political considerations, in addition to being subject to judicial review.”
Though the European Union emphasised that the bans are for a limited period, “the restrictions are here to stay for the foreseeable future”, Wiseman noted. Politicians in some European Union nations were already discussing the need for safeguards, he said.
Not only has RT been banned but Metaverse has allowed hate speech against Russian soldiers. Meta relaxed its policies on hate speech to permit Facebook and Instagram users in certain countries to call for violence against the Russian military though such hate speech would violate their rules.
The ban on RT has to be seen in a wider context and its political significance understood. RT was established in 2005 to present a Russian perspective on global events and to represent Russia to the world.
The emergence of RT as an international broadcaster was acknowledged as “altering the international media ecology”. It was thought to be such a significant event that the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK funded a collaboration between The University of Manchester and The Open University to undertake a project titled “Reframing Russia for the Global Mediasphere: From Cold War to ‘Information War’?”
Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, RT was often portrayed as a pariah among international broadcasters, “yet the network confidently internalises and reappropriates this status”, according to scholar Ilya Yablokov involved in the project. Vera Tolz and Stephen Hutchings, two other experts involved in the project, reflect on the history of the term “disinformation”:
“In most cases the practices described as disinformation amount to subtle ways of manipulating information which fall short of fabricating false content. Under these circumstances, the term ‘disinformation’ is prone to slip into becoming a verbal weapon deployed in bitter polemics between opposing sets of players who often belong within single national contexts. Our analysis of the national language corpora suggests that, in most cases, politicians or media outlets brand other domestic politicians or media as spreaders of disinformation.”
By describing RT as a spreader of disinformation, the Western media justified the demonisation of not just one leader, Vladimir Putin, but an entire country and people, their culture, their history and their right to exist. There are at least 5,534 sanctions – perhaps even more since that count – against Russia, unprecedented in the history of sanctions.
These sanctions included a ban by a French organisation – Fédération Internationale Féline – disallowing Russian felines from participating in its events for the next three months.
Then there was news that Cardiff Philharmonic removed Tchaikovsky, the Swan lake composer, from its concert schedule. The ban has been condemned by many including John Suchet, a Classic FM presenter, who pointed out that “Tchaikovsky adored Ukraine”.
There was a proposed ban on the great Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, by a university in Italy. According to Newsweek, Italian writer Paolo Nori said on Instagram that he was informed by University of Milano-Bicocca officials over email about the decision to postpone his course following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Nori said he had been invited by the university to deliver a four-session course on Dostoevsky, whose prominent works include Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
The ban on RT was justified by the West because they called the channel a mouthpiece of Putin. However, a study of how RT covering the FIFA World Cup in 2018 showed that respondents concluded that “Russia isn’t a country of Putins!” and that the channel is not merely a mouthpiece of Putin’s regime because reality is more complex.
The Manchester University study has resulted in the publication of a book, Russia Today and Conspiracy Theories: People Power and Politics on RT, by Ilya Yablokov and Precious N Chatterje-Doody.
Slier, the RT correspondent, ends on a sombre note:
“Pro-Kremlin channels will continue to broadcast inside Russia and the divide between information from the west and Russia and her supporters disseminate and receive will continue to grow. Wars will increasingly be fought online through the media. It’s already becoming a case of whose story wins rather than whose army wins. Banning the stories you don’t like seems an inadequate way to deal with the problem. Not only does it violate freedom of speech, it’s the start of a slippery slope that opens the door for future suppression.”
She concluded: “Journalism, a profession whose badge I was once proud to wear, is in crisis.”
Indian journalists, especially those on the frontlines of the Russia-Ukraine war, need to think more deeply about the Western double standards on human rights and humanitarian law. In this context, the most blatant has been while reporting on the Ukrainian refugees and the racist attacks on non-European refugees, including Indians, while crossing the border.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.