Jacob Mchangana, author of Free Speech: A Global History From Socrates to Social Media, thinks banning RT in Europe in retaliation for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a really, really bad idea. (And I agree.) He has set out his reasoning in UnHerd.
In 1922, the USSR established the General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press (known as Glavlit) to weed out “propaganda against the Soviet Union” that “stirred up public opinion through false information”. The mission of Glavlit reflected Lenin’s view that the press was “no less dangerous than bombs and machine-guns” and that its proper role was to serve as “a collective propagandist [and] agitator” for Bolshevik ideas.
Like Lenin and Stalin before him, Vladimir Putin is obsessed with controlling the public sphere through censorship and propaganda. In 2022 Glavlit has been replaced by the media regulator Roskomnadzor, which, in the past week alone has ordered media outlets to only use official Russian sources and banned words like “invasion” and “war” when reporting on events in Ukraine. It has also blocked online access to media outlets for “disseminating false information”, a crime which has seen at least ten media outlets facing legal sanctions. In addition, Russia is seeking to spread its propaganda globally through outlets such as state sponsored broadcasters like RT and Sputnik.
Faced with this development the European Commission is moving forward with an EU-wide total ban on RT and Sputnik – both online and offline – while a similar move in the UK has been proposed by Labour leader Keir Starmer. According to Ursula Van Der Leyen the EU´s “unprecedented” initiative is needed to “ban [Russian] toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe”.
While sanctions targeting Russian oligarchs and the kleptocratic infrastructure of Russia’s economy should be expanded, European democracies should be careful not to copy and paste Putin’s censorship tactics. Once the centralised command and control of media freedom in 27 democracies based on inherently vague definitions of “propaganda” and “disinformation” has been established, the danger is that it will almost inevitably be used to target other forms of undesirable information in the future.
Worth reading in full.
Stop Press: Fraser Myers wrote a piece in Spiked a few days ago making a similar argument.