Banning Russia Today would solve nothing

Russia Today may be full of conspiracy theories but banning the channel is not the answer to Russian aggression. The real losers from this would be journalists and Russia’s domestic opposition, argues Madeline Roache

The month’s attempted assassination of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury has sent relations between the UK and Russia spiralling, with both sides issuing recriminations and counter-recriminations.

The latest threat concerns the Russian-government funded English-language news network, Russia Today (RT), described by one British MP as a ‘propaganda mouthpiece for the Russian state’. In a debate following Prime Minister Theresa May’s assertion that it was ‘highly-likely’ there was Russian state involvement in the incident, she faced repeated calls to take action against RT. British broadcasting regulator, Ofcom has now warned RT that if the UK determines Russia was behind the nerve gas attack it will reconsider whether RT is ‘fit and proper’ to operate in the country.

A ban on RT is likely to fuel accusations of Russophobia and victimization by the West, and above all a charge of Western hypocrisy: Britain preaches democracy abroad but fails to guarantee it within its own borders

But the proposed ban on RT could backfire.

Moscow has a history of counter-accusations and conspiracy-mongering, whether in attempting to obscure its complicity in the mass murder of Syrian civilians by Russian ally Bashar al-Assad, or suggesting the Rothschilds were behind the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. At home, the Kremlin portrays the West as an enemy out to get Russia, which solidifies support for Putin – while diminishing chances for an opposition movement to emerge by tarring Putin’s opponents as ‘unpatriotic’. Russia’s sense of being threatened by the West also helps the Kremlin justify acts of aggression abroad.

A ban on RT is likely to fuel accusations of Russophobia and victimization by the West, and above all a charge of Western hypocrisy: Britain preaches democracy abroad but fails to guarantee it within its own borders.

This is already happening. On Sunday night, Russian state TV’s flagship programme, Vyesti Nedyeli (‘News of the Week’) claimed British Prime Minister Theresa May herself invented Novichok, the nerve agent used against Skripal and his daughter, and that ‘Britain prefers to act against Russia in a dirty way, treacherously, with Russophobia and ultimatums.’ Commenting on the proposed ban, RT said it is being used as a ‘sacrificial political pawn’ and revoking its licence would make a mockery of the concept of press freedom in the UK.

The ban on RT would likely lead to the retributive expulsion of British journalists from Russia and hamper free speech within the country.

A spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, was reported by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency as saying that ‘Not a single British media outlet will work in our country if they shut down RT’, which could affect outlets including the BBC World Service, Sky News, The Guardian, and others who have correspondents in the country.

It would not be the first time that foreign journalists have come under Russian pressure. In 2014, Moscow expelled American journalist and author David Satter, a former Financial Times correspondent who wrote critically about Putin’s regime.

Last November, Russia moved against Western media in direct response to RT being made to register as a ‘foreign agent’ in the US, as part of the fallout over allegations that Russia interfered in last year's US presidential election in favour of Donald Trump. Putin signed a law allowing authorities to label foreign media outlets that engage in broadly defined ‘political activity’ as ‘foreign agents’, subjecting them to onerous requirements. Failure to meet the new requirements could result in the suspension of their activities. The Russian government has already notified Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), both funded by the U.S. government, that they must register as foreign agents.

‘This legislation is tailor-made to be selectively and politically enforced, and to silence voices they do not want Russian people to hear,’ said the Europe and Central Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, Hugh Williamson, at the time.

The move against the American news outlets is yet another blow to media freedom in Russia, which Putin has been dismantling since he came into office in 2000 – and especially after the 2011-12 mass protests and the 2014 Ukraine conflict. As Jill Dougherty, former CNN Moscow bureau chief says, establishing a single, unchallenged narrative was essential to mobilizing domestic support for the war.

In October 2014, Putin passed a law limiting foreign ownership in Russian media assets to 20 percent, forcing some of the world’s largest media companies to sell their assets or shut down, including Conde Nast, Hearst Corporation and Axel Springer. Then in May 2015, a law came into effect banning media from reporting on casualties among Russia troops deployed in special operations, classifying these as ‘state secrets’.

Russia’s nationalistic media campaign appears to have worked and according to polls conducted by Russia’s Levada Center, positive Russian attitudes toward Ukraine and the West dramatically collapsed during the Euromaidan; Russians think the most hostile countries are the United States, followed by Ukraine, Germany, Latvia and Lithuania. A UK decision to ban RT would again play into the Kremlin’s hands and leave the Russian opposition out in the cold.

‘We have witnesses who say you met with unhappy locals and used the word “annexation”. This word is incorrect. We don’t like it’

Many independent Russian outlets been also been severely restricted or shut down. In 2014, Russia’s attorney general ordered federal censors to block the opposition website, accusing it of publishing ‘incitements to illegal action’, including unsanctioned political rallies. The independent TV channel Dozhd (Rain) almost faced closure in January 2014 after it posted an online poll asking viewers to vote on whether Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) should have surrendered to the Nazis during World War II to save its residents' lives.

The media landscape is even worse in Crimea where, after annexation by Russia in 2014, independent outlets were forcibly shut down, transmissions of Ukrainian stations were replaced with broadcasts from Russia and many journalists fled to escape harassment, violence and arrest. I caught a glimpse of this during a research trip to Crimea’s capital, Simferopol in February, when police detained and questioned me about my political interests and work. ‘We have witnesses who say you met with unhappy locals and used the word “annexation”. This word is incorrect. We don’t like it,’ they said.

The poisoning of Skripal and his daughter seems to be just the latest example of Russia’s aggressive intervention in a foreign country. It is part of the same attempt to destabilize democracy as the invasion in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, military manoeuvres on NATO’s eastern borders, the bombing of Syria and more. An international consensus that joins the dots of these events is both increasingly urgent and necessary.

Britain’s expulsion of Russian diplomats, and the proposal to ban RT, much like Estonia’s ban on Russian media, and US sanctions over Kremlin election meddling, are not enough to stop Moscow’s aggression.

Rather than countries separately punishing Russia, there needs to be collective, multilateral efforts through existing institutions such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). It’s starting to happen. The initial response was a joint UK, US French and German response, now the entire EU bloc has joined the protest – with Australia and the US also expelling diplomats.

While the suggestion that countries might boycott this year’s World Cup in Russia looks far-fetched and Boris Johnson’s comparison with the 1936 Nazi Olympics overly dramatic, acts of protest by fans and even players are possible, if only to counter a Russian propaganda coup. The 1978 tournament in Argentina served to expose the dictatorship’s horrific human rights record to the world, and Russia’s image is vulnerable to critical media attention during the competition.

The closer the international community comes to a joint recognition of Russia’s global aggression, the better it will be able to counter it – and prevent its escalation. Banning RT is the wrong battle to pick.