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Russian Media Wars: Why Europe's Ban On Sputnik And RT​ Could Backfire

The EU is planning to ban state broadcaster Russia Today and news agency Sputnik. But how is the network reporting on the war in Ukraine? And will banning them potentially affect Russians more than Europeans?

Russian Media Wars: Why Europe's Ban On Sputnik And RT​ Could Backfire

A journalist reads the news on her smartphone at the Ukrainian-Polish border in Medyka

Christian Meier


BERLIN — President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has announced that the European Union plans to ban Russian state broadcaster Russia Today (RT) and state-owned news agency Sputnik. In making the announcement last Sunday, von der Leyen vowed that the EU would develop the necessary technological tools to prevent the broadcaster from spreading “toxic and damaging disinformation” and “lies to justify Putin’s war” in Europe.

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How this ban will be implemented on a practical level remains unclear.

The news was immediately reported in a bulletin on RT DE, the company’s German-language channel, which viewers in Germany can watch through satellite or livestream online, although RT DE does not have a license from the German media authorities. RT DE is appealing its ban, but while the court case is ongoing, it is still broadcasting.

Foreign broadcaster licenses

In Germany, the government does not grant licenses to foreign broadcasters that receive state financial support. RT DE is believed to have received around €32 million from the Russian government this year. The important difference here is between broadcasters financed by the state and public service broadcasters, which are financed through a license fee paid mainly by private households and overseen by independent watchdogs rather than by the state.

Authorities may as well 'ban the whole internet'

But RT claims to be “independent” — and has invoked Article 5 of the German constitution, which enshrines freedom of the press. The Russians highlighted an inconsistency concerning the international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, which is funded by German taxpayers and has no German broadcast license, but can sometimes be accessed in Germany via livestreams.

In RT DE’s news bulletin on Sunday evening, the presenter read a statement from Sputnik. It said, somewhat snippily, that the authorities may as well “ban the whole internet.” RT DE’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan was quoted as saying that the planned ban is simply an excuse to shut down the broadcaster in Europe — and therefore a “blow to freedom of expression.” She claims it’s unclear to her what Sputnik and RT have to do with Putin’s “military operation”.

Tit-for-tat censorship

Playing the freedom of expression card is an obvious move — but we must remember that although state broadcasters can serve an important journalistic purpose, they can’t be truly independent. RT’s management sees things differently: its official statement says that “RT is an autonomous, non-profit organization publicly funded by the Russian Federation.” It has also put forward experts, for example from England and the U.S., who have branded the plan to ban the broadcaster as “totalitarian.”

Even outside the Russian state media, there are questions around the efficacy of the EU’s plan. While there is some support for the move – as early as Friday, the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), based in Vienna, was calling for RT to be banned across Europe – others have reservations. They say that RT does not have significant influence in Europe – whereas it is important that Russians are able to access Western media, to fill in the information gaps likely to be perpetuated by their domestic media.

But if the EU imposes a ban, it is likely that Russia will retaliate by banning Western media. Deutsche Welle has already felt the effects – employees at the international German broadcaster have been stripped of their accreditation and the office has been closed. This happened shortly after the German Commission on Licensing and Supervision banned RT from broadcasting its programs in Germany.

RT DE is believed to have received around €32 million from the Russian government this year

Russia Today

What RT's Ukraine coverage looks like

What would be the downside of a ban on spreading “state propaganda”? Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, wrote on Twitter that during the Cold War, publications such as Soviet Weekly and Sputnik were available in Great Britain, where the public could also listen to Radio Moscow: “I don’t think the West was worried about them.” Christian Hoffmann, Professor of Communications Management at Leipzig University, also took to Twitter to write of Russian disinformation that “we overestimate the danger for us and underestimate the importance of Western media for the Russian people.”

Over the last few days, we have been able to build up a clear picture of RT DE’s reporting on the war in Ukraine. It has largely followed the Russian leadership’s interpretation of events, painting the invasion as a “special military operation in the Donbas” and claiming that “security risks” for Russia left the country with “no other option.” It points to the eastern expansion of NATO as a justification for the action, repeating that “Ukraine must not be allowed to join NATO at the cost of security in Europe.”

The channel also showed footage of the 100,000-strong peace demonstration in Berlin.

It broadcasts pictures, sometimes labelled “unverified”, that claim to show Ukrainian soldiers attacking civilians in what it designates as “independent states” in eastern Ukraine. It repeats claims of “bloody crimes against the population” in Donbas, and says that RT reporters have been shot at while filming at a nursery. It also publishes pictures that claim to show residents of eastern Ukraine waving to Russian tanks and telling reporters they just want to live in peace.

This paints the invasion as unavoidable and peace (although under what conditions, it remains to be seen) as desirable. The channel also showed footage of the 100,000-strong peace demonstration in Berlin, and on Monday a news anchor ended the report by expressing a wish for peace between Russia and Ukraine. The anchor’s tone remained impassive and business-like, the message conveyed more through headlines and quotes. Between news bulletins the channel often shows documentaries, including an American documentary about bunkers and a historical documentary about the atom bomb.

The dangers of selective news coverage

It’s hard to gauge how dangerous this selective approach to the news, with phrases lifted from official Russian statements, could be for Europe. RT’s online programs are unlikely to reach a wide audience, but it has significant financial backing; it claims to be broadcast “in more than 100 countries across five continents,” with “eight 24/7 TV channels and various digital platforms.” Russian video news agency Ruptly, which is linked to RT, is based in Berlin. RT claims to report on stories “that the mainstream media ignores.”

The EU’s decision to ban RT and Sputnik could put an end to the debate that has been raging in Germany over the past few months. RT DE’s new German-language offering launched in mid-December and the relevant media authority immediately initiated a legal challenge, as RT DE did not have a German license.

At first, RT DE tried unsuccessfully to gain a license, then it was granted a Serbian license. In early February, the German Commission on Licensing and Supervision banned the channel from broadcasting in the country, saying it needed a German license, which it did not have – and which it had never applied for.

Germany is accused of Anti-Russian bias

RT DE appealed against this ban and the case is currently with the Berlin Administrative Court. RT DE is challenging the commission’s ruling, claiming it is “a foreign German-language broadcaster that is headquartered in and broadcasts from Moscow”. It accuses Germany of “anti-Russian bias” in blocking the establishment of a “German-Russian broadcaster.”

The German Commission on Licensing and Supervision categorically denies that its decision is politically motivated, saying the license is a question of media regulations. The Russians insist that programs are broadcast by Moscow-based company TV-Novosti, and the Berlin-based company only produces content.

But the opposition is not confined to Germany. In England, Culture Minister Nadine Dorries has asked media regulator Ofcom to investigate RT. In Australia, network operator Foxtel has stopped transmitting RT via its cable and satellite network. Even YouTube is wading into the debate – in December the U.S.-based company kicked two German RT channels off its platform. That decision was motivated by the claim that they were spreading false information about coronavirus. In a podcast, RT DE said that despite all the bans it would “continue to broadcast — from Moscow.”

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