Europe seeks a authorized route to change off Russian TV – POLITICO
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The EU has vowed to ban Kremlin-backed media outlets RT and Sputnik. Now it has just to figure out how to execute the politically risky move — legally.
Less than 24 hours after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the news organizations would be taken off the air as part of a wider package of sanctions against Russia, questions have already risen on how to implement the prohibition and whether Moscow will retaliate.
“We’re looking for the best legal way to ensure we can achieve our objectives,” the EU executive body’s chief spokesperson Eric Mamer told reporters at Monday’s midday briefing.
The Commission is likely to pitch, potentially as early as Monday, an ad hoc text to EU capitals that would provide national regulators and online platforms with the legal ground to remove RT and Sputnik.
The EU took decisive action against RT after days of mounting pressure as Russian troops closed in several Ukrainian cities, bombarding them along the way. Formerly known as Russia Today, RT has been described in the West as a propaganda tool that the Kremlin uses to disseminate pro-Russian rhetoric and justify its Ukraine invasion. The proposed ban comes against the backdrop of thinly veiled nuclear threats by Russia and an escalating information war, and as Moscow intensifies its crackdown on foreign platforms and local media.
Brussels and the European capitals are also looking to turn off the websites and social media accounts of the sprawling Kremlin-backed media outlets, which reach European citizens in various languages, including French, English and Spanish.
Still, even with the backing of all 27 members, the EU’s move is a political decision that now needs to be translated into practical, legal steps. And the rules usually applied to broadcasters do not look relevant in wartime.
“Media regulation is really not fit for any immediate action, because it’s based on the principle of independence and freedom of speech, freedom of media,” said Ľuboš Kukliš, head of the Slovak media regulator. “So, the Commission would need to take other routes if they want to ban those media outlets immediately,” he added, in a reference to economic sanctions.
On Monday, the European Commission and the French government both had to answer to criticism that banning RT and Sputnik could amount to censorship. It’s a line Russian-backed channels themselves, including RT France, are also using to protest the decision.
“I hear a debate on freedom of expression, this is not equivalent to any media that operates on French and European territory,” French Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune told French radio Europe 1. “To have media that are structurally organized as a relay of the Kremlin in our democracies, in times of war, cannot be accepted.”
Julien Nocetti, an expert in digital policy and Russia at St-Cyr Military Academy, said the ban announcement was “interesting” because it showed “a certain consensus among the EU on these Russian state-backed media.”
However, he warned, “it could be dangerous in that Moscow could retaliate against European media organizations and journalists in Russia, limiting our on-the-ground understanding of the country.”
There’s already precedent for that. Moscow recently banned German public media Deutsche Welle from reporting and broadcasting in Russia after Germany’s media regulator shut down the German-language version of RT.
The European Broadcasting Union, which represents public TV channels such as France Télévisions, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The BBC declined to comment.
Options on the table
The European Commission will likely lean on a Council decision to move the ban forward, two EU officials said. (A spokesperson declined to immediately confirm.)
That’s upping the ante from the usual path, where national regulators retain the power to decide whether to take a channel off the air.
Last week, the Polish and Estonian media watchdogs did just that with Russian broadcasters, and the French regulator Arcom is currently assessing a complaint filed by an NGO against RT France. A spokesperson for Arcom on Monday said she had no additional information on how to implement von der Leyen’s announcement.
The European network of national media regulators (ERGA) said it was not in a position to comment on the subject.
In the meantime, the leaders of the Baltic countries and Poland asked Google and Facebook to curb Russian disinformation, including by limiting the social media accounts and web streaming channels of Kremlin-backed outlets. On the same day, the French digital affairs ministers asked companies such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft to block RT and Sputnik, according to three people with first-hand knowledge of the meeting.
On Sunday evening, top Commission officials Věra Jourová and Thierry Breton ramped up the pressure on the CEOs of YouTube and Google, asking them to take “urgent” measures to tackle Russian disinformation.
Facebook’s parent company Meta announced Monday evening it would restrict access to RT and Sputnik across the EU. YouTube said Saturday it would “significantly limit” recommendations for RT and several Russian state-run media channels.
Twitter followed suit on Monday, announcing it would start labeling and liming the visibility of tweets with links to Russian state-affiliated media.
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