Only a few days ago, when I was mulling over writing a post on the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Bloomberg case, I was thinking how nice it was that, for the first time in almost two years, I would not have to contemplate writing something about the pandemic. However, as I write this post on 28 February 2022, the world has once again been turned on its head, and life as we know it is under threat.
This time the threat is not coming from a virus, but rather from the irrational and despicable actions of Vladimir Putin; a despot who last week ordered the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, and seems hell-bent on ruining the lives of potentially millions of innocent people to satisfy his own desires for who knows what (at the moment at least). By the time you read this, inevitably, the situation would have evolved significantly. Indeed, as you will see from my post, the topics I discuss are changing as I write. I sincerely hope that the situation has improved for the better by time this post is published. In the meantime, my best wishes go out to all those affected by this terrible conflict.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
As you would expect, the media and its journalists, social media, and citizen journalists are playing their role in the conflict. Of course, the mainstream press and media are providing almost constant updates on events as they unfold, but it appears that there is also an internal war being fought within Russia between state-backed media controlled by Putin and those close to him, and independent outlets that are more difficult for him to control, and are willing to expose his lies.
The Russian propaganda machine
With 62 per cent of the Russian population obtaining news from television, Putin and his regime use state-backed media outlets, and in particular their television channels (such as Channel One), as powerful disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda machines. For example, Pjotr Sauer, writing for The Guardian on 26 February 2022 reported that the: “full force of the state propaganda machine has been mobilised to portray Russia’s invasion as a defensive campaign to “liberate” Ukraine, focusing much of its coverage on the alleged protection of Donbas, supposedly under attack by Kyiv.” Sauer goes on to explain that Russian state news “mostly” follows Putin’s narrative on the “special military operation” to “demilitarise” Ukraine, and to protect citizens in Donbas from what he claims is a genocide by Ukraine (P. Sauer, State TV No bombs, no terror, just a welcome for liberators’ The Guardian, 26 February 2022).
Because of its use of this type of language, and its willingness to follow the Kremlin narrative, the RT news channel (which is Russia’s state-backed international television network that provides content for audiences outside of Russia) is unsurprisingly coming under intense scrutiny in the UK, with calls being made to ban it. Late last week, the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, demanded that RT’s UK broadcast licence be revoked. He told the House of Commons that the organisation, formerly called Russia Today, is Putin’s “personal propaganda tool” and that he could “see no reason why it should be allowed to broadcast in this country.” Although Ofcom is actively monitoring RT’s output for breaches of the broadcasting code, the regulator’s chief executive, Melanie Dawes, has made it clear that while RT is not permitted to broadcast “one sided propaganda” on Ukraine, it is “acceptable for broadcasters to present issues from a particular perspective provided that alternative views and opinions are also represented.”
However, as Jim Waterson acknowledges in his Guardian article, whether or not Ofcom takes any action against RT may be dependent on greater forces at play. He reports that if RT is banned in the UK, then the Kremlin will respond tit-for-tat by shutting down the BBC’s Russian services (which happened to German public broadcaster Deutsche Weller when the German media regulator took RT off the air in Germany in early February) and that, in any event, RT would continue to produce online content (J. Waterson, ‘Playing Russia’s game’ Opinions split over calls to ban Kremlin-backed RT’ The Guardian, 26 February 2022). Thus, in light of RT’s minimal influence and low viewing figures in the UK (the last available figures suggest that it only reaches around 79,000 people in the UK, with the average viewer watching for less than one minute) compared with the reach of the BBC’s Russian services, sources at the BBC have suggested that removing RT’s licence may in fact be more harmful than allowing it continue. So, it’s a case of watch the space at the moment.
Fighting back: the independent media and social media
On the other hand, independent media outlets, and their journalists, along with citizen journalists, are providing on-the-ground accounts of what is happening in front of them in real-time, often countering the narrative that is being created by Putin’s regime. Indeed, according to Sauer’s report independent outlets such as Meduza, which is a popular online platform in Russia, have been reporting critically on the war. With most Russian people under the age of 40 accessing their news online, and from social media, where Putin has less influence, this is clearly damaging his plans. Consequently, it seems in desperation, his regime has labelled the likes of Meduza as “foreign agents”, and Russia’s media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has demanded that Russian media only cite “official information and data” when covering the conflict, and that it will immediately block any outlets that does not comply with the order. Significantly, in the wake of Roskomnadzor’s demands, at the time of writing, leading Russian liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta sent an email to subscribers detailing threats it has received from the watchdog and requesting people vote on possible next steps. The newspaper has asked its readers to vote on what the paper should do next – either “to continue our work under military censorship and implement the demands of the authorities” or “to cease our editorial operations until the end of the war”.
Roskomnadzor is not just facing a battle with independent media internally. It is also fighting, what will inevitably be a losing battle, on another front: with social media. Late last week, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it announced the “partial restriction” of access to Facebook after the platform limited the accounts of several Kremlin-backed media organisations, including the state news agency RIA Novosti, state television channel Zvezda, and news sites Lenta.ru and Gazeta.ru. The watchdog demanded that Facebook lift the restrictions that it has imposed, which include marking content produced by these outlets as being ‘unreliable’. Although there has been no comment from Meta itself (the company that owns Facebook), whilst I was writing this post, there were further developments, as Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, tweeted the following:
“We [Meta] have received requests from a number of Governments and the EU to take further steps in relation to Russian state controlled media. Given the exceptional nature of the current situation, we will be restricting access to RT and Sputnik across the EU at this time.”
Furthermore, Clegg has also confirmed that the company has created a “special operations centre” to deal with Ukraine-linked content that incited violence or used hate speech. According to Nathanial Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security, the centre will “respond in real time” and is “staffed by experts, including native speakers, to monitor and act as fast as possible.”
Hackers, such as the collective Anonymous have also declared a ‘cyber war’ against the Kremlin, with RT being subjected to “massive” ‘distributed denial of service’ (DDoS) attacks, which render sites unreachable by bombarding them with spurious requests for information. The Anonymous declaration came in the wake of the Ukrainian government calling on hackers to help defend the country.
How all of this plays out, and the ongoing role that the media has in this awful situation remains to be seen. But one thing is clear already: Putin will not be allowed to control the message. The media is fighting back.
Dr Peter Coe, School of Law, University of Reading; Associate Research Fellow, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and Information Law and Policy Centre, University of London; Editor-in-chief of Communications Law.
This post will appear as the Editorial in the June issue of Communications Law and is published here with kind permission.