The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shocked the European Union and its member states into decisive action. With Germany upending decades of foreign policy choices and unprecedented economic sanctions imposed on key parts of the Russian economy and leadership, the ban of Russian state media in the EU has attracted less attention than it would have during a normal week. However, the ban is the EU’s most significant measure to date in its ongoing effort to push back against foreign autocratic information manipulation. While the move was necessary, more clarity on the legal and political grounds for the ban would ensure that it strengthens rather than weakens democracy in the long run.
Not A New Problem
Russian state media’s damaging impact on the democratic debate in EU member states is not a new phenomenon. In 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron denounced Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik “as agencies of influence and propaganda, lying propaganda” over their inflammatory coverage of the presidential race. In the summer of 2020, Latvia and Lithuania both banned RT over the outlet’s ties to an EU-sanctioned media executive. When announcing the bans, both Baltic countries accused RT of manipulating information to promote the Kremlin’s interests, with Latvia adding that the outlet tried to portray it “as a failed country.”
The content produced by RT and Sputnik’s European arms consistently tries to foster division in their host countries. For instance, the dedicated German- and French-language branches of RT have been key spreaders of anti-vaccine and anti-health measures stories in the EU’s two largest countries. In Germany in 2021, RT Deutsch’s most “successful”—as measured by engagement metrics—social media content was skeptical of vaccines, masks, lockdowns, and other coronavirus mitigation measures. Similarly, in France, the overwhelming majority of the most engaged-with content produced by Russia’s French-language state media outlets between November 2021 and February 2022 focused on anti-vaccine and anti-public health messages.
More broadly, Russian foreign policy priorities were always prominent in the content produced by the Kremlin’s state-run media. For instance, the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a recurring topic for outlets like RT DE. In hindsight, the German-language RT’s claims in 2021 that the West risked “sawing the branch it was sitting on” by delaying the pipeline or promises that the project would “drive gas prices down” ring particularly hollow in the light of Russia’s recent gas policies.
The success of Russian state media outlets in certain European countries meant that their narratives were reaching significant segment of the public. RT Deutsch’s Facebook page, for instance, had more interactions than any other German-language media page on the platform in 2021. And the French branch had a following comparable to large French TV network CNEWS or French state-run outlet France Inter.
Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
The use of the past tense when talking about RT’s reach in France and Germany is intended. RT Deutsch’s YouTube channel was taken down in September 2021 over its COVID-related disinformation. In December of that same year, Germany took the outlet off air over a broadcasting license issue. The measure turned into a permanent ban in February of this year. As Russian tanks drove into Ukraine, Russian state-run outlets that were already considered dangerous to public health morphed into full-fledged war propaganda machines. In the last two weeks of February, RT France and Sputnik France both pivoted away from coverage of Freedom Convoys or anti-vaccine pass protests to focus almost exclusively on presenting a pro-Russian account of the war in Ukraine. At the same time, Russian talking points about Ukraine were making their way into French political discourse. Poland moved fast and banned RT in the immediate aftermath of the invasion.
European Commissioner Thierry Breton was the first high-level EU official to warn that Russian state media were in Brussels’ crosshairs when he tweeted on February 26 that “Russian propaganda is not welcome in Europe.” The head of the Commission Ursula Von der Leyen confirmed the following day that Brussels would “ban the Kremlin’s media machine in the EU.” By March 2, the organization’s member states had voted in the Council to suspend the broadcasting activities of Sputnik and RT. According to Breton, the restrictions apply to all of the outlets’ distribution channels, including broadcast TV, satellite, TV, streaming platforms, and apps.
The cooperation of social media platforms has been integral to the EU’s efforts to muzzle the Kremlin’s war propaganda. Even before the EU’s measures had been finalized, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok had all announced they would restrict access to Russian state media on their platforms inside the EU. The French government went further by pressuring Telegram to limit access to RT in France. Twitter followed suit, and Spotify removed all content from Kremlin-backed outlets RT and Sputnik from its platform. And Apple and Google have both taken Russian state media apps off their respective app stores.
The EU and social media companies’ bans have not erased RT and Sputnik, they have simply blocked access to their content for anyone residing in the EU. The content is still accessible from other parts of the world—meaning, for instance, that RT France still can still malignly influence audiences in French-speaking parts of Africa. In addition, the content remains accessible using VPNs or other technical means to obfuscate a user’s geographical location. However, it remains to be seen how many European viewers will be dedicated enough to resort to these tools to keep accessing Russian state media.
In the short term, the EU has accomplished its objective to interrupt the flow of Russian disinformation targeting European citizens. However, this is unlikely to be the end of the story. Already, RT France has warned it would use “all available legal avenues” to contest the ban. More broadly, Russian state media outlets have framed the moves as an attack on freedom of the press. Their pleas sound particularly hypocritical in light of the measures just passed by the Kremlin inside Russia: the closing of independent outlets, blocking access to foreign social media platform, and a new draconian law threatening journalists who would factually report on the war with jail terms of up to 15 years. However, even inside the EU, there are timid voices that worry that the speed and extent of the European ban could constitute a troubling precedent. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine that aspiring autocrats inside the EU could one day use similar legal avenues to ban opposition media.
On balance, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents a clear and immediate threat to the security of the EU and its member states. In that context, Russian war propaganda has no place in European democracies, and the EU’s decisive moves to shut down Kremlin-funded outlets was necessary. However, there is still room to further refine the justification for the ban, for instance by framing it as a retaliation against Russia’s own hostile moves against freedom of the press, to ensure that it does not create a precedent for any aspiring autocrat with an axe to grind with media.