Brussels looks to ban RT, Sputnik from EU over Ukraine disinformation concerns

Serbia is the only country in Europe to refuse imposing sanctions on Russia, excluding Belarus, which is directly involved in Russian aggression. [STEPHANIE LECOCQ/EPA]

The European Commission is seeking the “best legal way” to ban pro-Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik to stop their “toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe” following Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s pledge to ban them on Sunday (27 February). EURACTIV France reports.

In a new round of sanctions targeting Russia, the EU executive announced the two media, controlled by the Russian state, would no longer be broadcast in the bloc.

“We will ban the Kremlin’s media machine in the EU,” said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, adding that Brussels was “developing tools to ban [the] toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe” of the two Moscow-funded channels and their subsidiaries.

The contours of this unprecedented bloc-wide ban remain to be clarified, as cutting off a channel’s signal is a matter for national regulators and requires, in the name of press freedom and pluralism, a solid legal basis, in addition to technical considerations.

“We attach great importance to media freedom. These are measures that are not taken lightly,” the Commission’s chief spokesman Eric Mamer acknowledged on Monday.

“We are looking at the best legal way to ensure that we can achieve our objective,” he added, without elaborating.

Contacted by EURACTIV, the European Commission said that “work is ongoing on the technical details which will be presented in due course” and reported “close contact” with the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services (ERGA), which brings together the supervisory authorities of each member state.

It is expected that once the “best legal way” is found, EU countries will apply them individually in cooperation with each other.

“We know how to do our job under a ban. These freedom-loving people have been preparing us for this for eight years,” said RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, while RT France wrote in a statement that it would “take all possible legal recourse”, criticising the lack of “legal basis” for the ban.

Contacted by EURACTIV, the French subsidiary’s lawyer, Basil Ader, was not available for comment.

The Sputnik news agency responded to the announcement by stating, “We advise the European Union not to stop at half measures and simply ban the internet.”

Russia Today faces being taken off air

The Kremlin-backed TV channel Russia Today faces the prospect of being taken off the airwaves in the UK after the culture minister asked the media watchdog Ofcom to review the news channel’s broadcasts in the UK.

Nadine Dorries told Ofcom that …

RT France

In France, the audiovisual and digital communication super-regulator known as Arcom is responsible for monitoring the obligations of television channels by way of a bilateral agreement.

Arcom can terminate an agreement with a media under the influence or control of a foreign state if it “undermines the fundamental interests of the Nation, including the regular functioning of its institutions, in particular by disseminating false information,” France’s Freedom of Communication Law states.

An investigation against RT France is already underway after a formal notice was issued in 2018 by Arcom’s predecessor, the High Council for audiovisual matters, CSA. The body said RT France had failed to ensure honesty, rigorous reporting and diversity of views after the channel broadcast a story disputing the reality of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

“Arcom is particularly vigilant in ensuring that RT France complies with its legal and contractual obligations. If it considers it justified, the regulator will not hesitate to use, without delay, the legal tools at its disposal, which may go as far as requesting the suspension of its broadcasting,” the authority told AFP about the current situation.

While the broadcasting regulator is cautious for the time being, it could nevertheless follow in the footsteps of several of its European counterparts who have already banned these pro-Russian media on their soil.

The latest EU country to do so is Romania.

On Monday, it announced that it would take “measures to block certain sources that have been identified as spreading fake news in the context of the crisis in Ukraine,” government spokesman Dan Carbunaru told a press briefing.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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