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The West and Freedom of the Press

For them, it may sound unusual when Russia complains about press freedom in other countries. They are not informed about the events in eastern Europe in the Tagesschau, let alone Reporters Without Borders advocates for Russian media, no in order to inform themselves about the events they would have to speak Russian, Ukrainian, or other Eastern European languages in order to be informed about the Russian-phobic European community of values. I would like to quote the Russian foreign Ministry:

Ukrainian information space update

Today, we are marking another anniversary of the Minsk Agreements. Prior to this, we published an extensive commentary containing our assessment of the situation as a whole and the current stage of the efforts being made to implement the Minsk Agreements. I am not sure that the word “stage” is appropriate in this context. I think we should focus on the definition contained in our statement: the “imitation” of efforts to implement the Minsk Agreements by the Ukrainian side. I would like to discuss the developments taking place in the Ukrainian information space as a separate item.

We again have to turn the spotlight onto the situation regarding freedom of expression in Ukraine, where the Kiev regime has been systematically consolidating its hold on the media and bringing increased pressure to bear on dissenting information sources.

Arousing serious concern are its latest legislative initiatives in the media sphere. The bills “On the media” and “On countering disinformation” actually envisage a number of substantial restrictions for the media and in fact impose state censorship on stories that the authorities find embarrassing for themselves.

It is difficult not to see that these antidemocratic legislative initiatives are directed exclusively against Russia. Specifically, we are facing yet another Ukrainian attempt to oust Russian information content and deprive the population of an opportunity to receive unbiased and objective information on domestic and world events. Even if one cannot describe some single source or a group of sources as fully objective, then at least one is witnessing an attempt to deprive their own population of an alternative and additional point of view.

Judge for yourselves: one of the bills directly instructs the media to cover the Russian leaders’ activities in a negative way. The plans are to legitimate the ban on “popularising and producing propaganda for the government agencies of the aggressor state.” Judging by the policy that Kiev pursues with regard to the Donbass residents, it is Ukraine that is the aggressor state. And the most horrible thing is that it is an aggressor state towards its own people. The same bill contains an exoneration (or denial) of an armed aggression and annexation of Ukraine’s territory as well as violation of its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Clearly, these restrictions, given the right interpretation, can be extended to any journalistic writings.

There is also a proposal to turn down registration applications from news agencies whose governance bodies are located in Russia. But do European and world conventions, or material, agreements and declarations that regulate journalists’ professional activities say anything of the kind? Where is this allowed or encouraged in principle? What documents stimulate this sort of behaviour? This behaviour, on the contrary, is criticised by national and supranational professional communities.

Apart from this, the Ukrainian media market will be closed to companies whose owners or beneficiaries are Russian citizens or tax residents. Relaying signals from Russian territory is banned as well.

Kiev is also tough on dissenting national media. Last week, the Security Service of Ukraine searched the office of Channel 1+1. In so doing, the officers declared that criminal persecution had nothing to do with “pressure on the media or impingement on the freedom of expression.” But what were they doing there? Carrying out a maintenance inspection? Checking the electrical wiring? What are we talking about? Where are the related international organisations? Where are all those who are tracking the developments in the field of media rights and freedoms through a magnifying glass? Concern has been expressed by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir and related Ukrainian and international NGOs, including the Ukraine National Union of Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders. The problem is that this is just a one-off and gentle response, quite unlike what they organised for the benefit of Oleg Sentsov or Nadezhda Savchenko. After all, they know how to stand with placards at embassy gates, write petitions, stage daily flashmobs, organise support rallies, or snap photos. As a gesture of goodwill they even deliver food to the channel’s office. I know that Ukrainian journalists are fond of things like that and know how to do them.

We hope that the Kiev authorities will heed the international community’s opinion, reread the commitments signed by their predecessors, stop their arbitrary treatment of the media, and step once again back onto the path leading to the civilised world that they are so eager to join. We once again call on the Kiev government to comply with the international obligations in the field of media freedom and freedom of expression they have assumed.

Russian-language media in the Baltics

We are worried about the aggravated situation concerning the Russian and Russian-language media in the Baltic countries. Similar measures, founded on nothing but political reasons, towards the Russian media adopted by the governments of various countries are instruments of pressure on the media and are part of an anti-Russian campaign being waged against Russian journalists and media. If there were some facts, they would have been mentioned. But here we only see identical political measures aimed at putting pressure or containing those concerned, or simply aggressive acts.

On February 4, the Latvian State Security Service conducted searches of the Riga office of Baltic Media Alliance that includes 25 television channels in the Baltic countries that broadcast programmes by Russia’s Channel One and Ren TV.

As an official pretext for the searches, Riga claims that a certain group of people, including the co-owners and board members of the Alliance Oleg Solodov and Alexey Plyasunov, are suspected of violating EU sanctions. This pretext can be used to crank out many similar situations and can be used against any media. However, against the backdrop of the system-wide prosecution by Latvian authorities of Russian-language information sources, this case looks like it is a fake, and the statements made by the Latvian security agencies are Riga’s failed attempt to justify its discriminative and repressive policy towards the media. And once again we are asking, where is everyone? Where are all the protesters in front of the embassies of the relevant countries, first of all Latvia, and other EU countries? Where are the flashmobs and the supporters?

The fact that the Latvian district court upheld the decision of the National Electronic Media Council to stop broadcasting nine Russian channels confirms once again the fact that Latvia is not going to review its attitude towards Russian-language media resources. Moreover, President of the Republic of Latvia Egils Levits yesterday asked the Latvian parliament’s commission on human rights and public affairs to increase the share of television programmes in the official EU languages in the country’s cable networks to 80 percent. What can I say? Yes, it is much better to concentrate on the languages of Old Europe like Spanish and Portuguese. This is very relevant for Latvia. Does anybody else see it?

We consider these steps a direct violation of the rights and freedoms of the media and the discrimination against the Russian-speaking population of the republic whose access to information in Russia is being restricted.

Other Baltic republics show similar trends.

As of January 1, 2020 the government of Latvia forced Sputnik Estonia to suspend its operations, by using unprecedented pressure and even threats to start a criminal prosecution against the employees of the Russian news agency.

In Lithuania, Sputnik is also being put under pressure. In May 2019, the authorities in the republic issued a 5-year entry ban for the agency’s news editor Marat Kasem. Let me remind you that last year, the country banned the broadcasting of the Russian channels RTR Planeta and Rossiya 24 under various pretexts; the Russian media resources’ websites were also blocked.

It is obvious that we are dealing with a blatantly Russophobic campaign. By the way, representatives of these countries are taking part in the Paris Peace Forum at various levels (officials and civil society representatives). Some of the forum’s sections are devoted to freedom of speech, democratic processes and freedom of the press. How are they feeling there? What is the point of attending such forums when you destroy any other alternative point of view in your country using political means? Moreover, you have no respect for the rights of national minorities. I truly believe that any people, any country deserves to be called by its name. Okay, national minorities is an accepted term, but it is still insulting. People who were born and raised in these countries, who contributed to its prosperity and evolvement while speaking and thinking Russian, should be respected. Most importantly, their rights are protected at an international level.

We urge the international human rights NGOs and relevant international bodies to assess the situation concerning the position of the media and the rights of journalists in the region. First of all, we are expecting a response from the OSCE.

World Radio Day

Tomorrow, February 13, marks World Radio Day, proclaimed by the UNESCO General Conference in 2011 and timed to coincide with the first broadcast of the UN Radio in 1946.

This year, “Radio and diversity” is the theme of World Radio Day. It is expected to focus on such issues as pluralism and combatting discrimination against radio journalists based on their race, social status, age, religion or gender. I am telling you all of this after what I said and you knew about the Sputnik radio station, among other things, in the countries also united by UNESCO. How is this possible? It is a paradox.

I would like to stress that recently Russian radio broadcasters have been discriminated against frequently and had to face attempts to limit their activities by any means from several countries’ authorities.

Just a few examples. The Ukrainian radio segment: after the law on the state language was adopted in May 2019, the Kiev authorities introduced language quotas on television and radio stating that at least 90 percent of the national and regional media broadcasts must be in Ukrainian. In fact, the radio content is also censored by the state. How do they determine these 90 percent? Based on what? On the number of people living there? On the popularity of the language? How is this indicator determined? Perhaps Ukraine held some consultations with its international partners, non-government organisations or specialised agencies? By the way, they could have asked UNESCO whether this innovation corresponds to the internationally recognised rules and norms in this sphere.

The Sputnik radio has faced politically biased obstacles in the United States. In February 2019, a US company that produces content for it, RIA Global, had to register as a foreign agent at the demand of the US Department of Justice. This makes its operation more difficult: it directly affects the company’s activities and entails financial and legal problems as well as an entire range of other problems it now has to face.

Apart from RIA Global, the US Department of Justice demanded that several of Sputnik’s partner companies broadcasting the Russian radio station’s programmes at FM frequencies register as foreign agents.

Often radio programmes are not used to provide socially important information to people but as a tool for propaganda, disinformation and simply lies. We have already mentioned the December 10 broadcast of the Crimea: Realities radio programme at the Foreign Ministry’s website, where articles with false information about Russia are exposed. The radio hosts accused the Russian authorities of preventing foreign officials, international observers and monitoring groups from accessing the peninsula. We call them every day, organise press tours and trips, and consult with journalists. Many of you here in the audience have taken part in such trips. Our main goal is to open Crimea to foreign visitors, official delegations, non-governmental organisations and journalists as widely as possible. And yet such total fakes appear. The situation is completely the opposite. Russia is constantly inviting foreign representatives, as I have said, including journalists. This is not just about organised tours or trips. There is every opportunity to visit Crimea independently. We are only needed when you require help or assistance in organising an interview, if you come across problems or too much red tape. If you want to go there and see everything for yourselves, there are no barriers. You should see for yourselves what the real situation on the peninsula is and then compare it to the message of the Crimea: Realities programme. The violation of the visa requirements can be the only reason to prohibit entry to Crimea, but this is the usual practice in any country and does not discriminate against people who want to visit Crimea. Of course, there are security restrictions due to the anti-terrorism and anti-extremism measures carried out in full compliance with the national law, like in any other countries. In fact, there are no other barriers.

We hope that World Radio Day will not become another reason for political speculation but for the professional community’s honest discussion of broadcasters’ problems and development prospects in the industry in strict compliance with the high standards of the quality and objective journalism. Despite new media formats appearing in recent years, radio programmes remain one of the main formats of broadcasting for general audiences as well as a socially important communication channel.