The battle against Russia’s elaborate, state-driven propaganda machine precedes the start of the war in 2014. From day one, Russia spewed out an incendiary mix of malicious disinformation, invented “facts,” wild exaggerations, and outright lies, from Kyiv being overrun by “Nazis,” to non-existent threats to ethnic Russians in the east. This has played a crucial role in escalating tensions in Ukraine and fanning the flames of the conflict.
There is plenty of evidence that the channels in question have engaged in similar, malicious discourse for years, as Ukraine’s media watchdog, the National Broadcasting Council, and numerous independent media outlets have repeatedly pointed out.
Such propaganda and misinformation are dangerous, harmful, and need to be addressed. However, addressing them through an extrajudicial decree that restricts media pluralism can be a slippery slope.
Freedom of expression and the right to information are guaranteed by free, independent and diversified media. These rights are not absolute, which means they can be restricted – but only if the restrictions are set out clearly in law so that it is foreseeable how they will be imposed, and if they are necessary and proportionate for a legitimate purpose.
Some of the steps Ukraine has taken in recent years to combat propaganda do not pass this test. They include banning books; expelling or denying entry to journalists; proposing legislation against dissemination of “disinformation” that would have jeopardised freedom of expression and media independence (which thankfully did not advance in parliament). Some of these initiatives would not have been out of place in Orwell’s novel – or in Putin’s Russia.
In 2017, President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree banning public access to Russian social media platforms, news, and a major search engine used by millions of Ukrainians daily.
A study was commissioned by the Freedom House, which conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, in 2019 to review the outcome of those measures, concluded that they “resulted in significant and unanticipated collateral damage to Ukraine’s freedom of expression, informational space, and economic interests; moreover, they did not make meaningful progress in achieving the goals officials offered as their justification.”
A free and pluralistic media landscape is essential for democracy. Ukraine’s authorities do have other means available to counter harmful propaganda in ways that are less of a threat to media pluralism and diversity, by at least going through the courts where their measures and claims would be subject to independent judicial scrutiny.
So for example, the National Security and Defense Council or Ukraine’s National Council for TV and Radio Broadcasting could file a lawsuit against these TV channels in an administrative court and request the court to annul their broadcasting licenses, for inciting hatred or infringing on people’s rights. Similarly, the authorities could present the proof of terrorist activities in court and seek to have them held accountable directly for those activities.
This war has already claimed numerous casualties and led to untold losses. Freedoms of expression and media are among the most crucial freedoms in a democratic state. It would be a great loss for Ukraine to sacrifice them, even temporarily, to this conflict.Print