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Does Taking Russian TV off the Air in Ukraine Qualify as Censorship?

By Iryna Chulivska (Institute for Mass Information) for Ukrainska Pravda, March 24, 2014

Photo caption: Dmitry Kiselev: “Veterans are burned alive during the Liberation Day in Kherson.”

Working for a journalist human rights organization, I frequently have to face the facts of censorship. We collect data on instances of censorship and talk with journalists who fell victim to it, so we decided, instead of keeping quiet, to track this phenomenon by monitoring mass media. Thus, my familiarity with censorship extends beyond reading Wikipedia.

When talks emerged about the possibility of taking Russian TV channels off the air on the territory of Ukraine, some Western politicians took this as censorship. If one does not look any further, it may indeed appear, at first glance, that such a step amounts to encroachment on the freedom of speech.

But there is one “but.”

The freedom of speech does not entail lies and manipulations, especially if they incite clashes among the population. Prohibiting lies is not censorship, it is common sense. One could spend a long time arguing about utility and efficacy of such a step. A lot has already been said on this subject, and both sides – supporters and opponents of the switch-off alike – offer weighty arguments.

Nevertheless, such actions should not not be considered censorship or pressure on mass media. Instead, these steps should simply be relegated to the legal realm, rather than taking channels off the air arbitrarily, as was the case with the Ukrainian media in Crimea.

In reality, the legal mechanisms for enforcing the National Broadcasting Council’s demand that service providers simply disconnect the Russian channels are clearly lacking. That is why not everyone has complied with it; for example, only one service provider did so in Donbas, and no providers in Luhansk oblast and Crimea.

However, this demand may be justified from a legal point of view. Specifically, restrictions on the freedom of speech are, in certain instances, justified by both the Constitution of Ukraine and the international treaties.

“If the Security Service of Ukraine uncovers instances of propaganda and incitement of hostility in the Russian media, it may file a complaint with the court. Then, based on the court decision, it will be possible to compel the provider to cut off certain mass media,” believes Roman Golovenko, a lawyer with the Institute for Mass Information.

The 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, ratified by Ukraine in 1997 and by Russia in 1998, holds that the right to freedom of expression may be restricted, if such restrictions or penalties “are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime…” (see Article 10, Section 2).

The same right is conferred by the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966 and effective in both Ukraine and Russia since 1976. The document provides that the free expression of opinion may be subject to restrictions, as long as these are provided by law and are necessary “for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals” (see Article 18, Section 3).

Similarly, even the Constitution of Ukraine also provides for restrictions on the free expression of views and beliefs “in the interests of national security [or] territorial integrity…” (see Article 34).

What we are seeing in Crimea is nothing but a direct, gross encroachment on the country’s territorial integrity. Meanwhile, the Russian media are excitedly justifying this, resorting to lies and manipulations.

The people in both Ukraine and Russia are being intimidated by “Maidan fighters,” “Banderites,” “neo-Nazis,” and “fascists” (all made up by Russian special forces), who, ostensibly, are traveling to the east to force the Russian-speakers to speak Ukrainian, to torture the Russians, and to set on fire Orthodox cathedrals and synagogues. Sowing such hostility is the very reason behind bloody confrontations, particularly in the east of Ukraine.

Russian mass media also resort to manipulating images.  For instance, to support their statements about alleged chaos in Crimea, they showed videos of violence on Hrushevsky Street in Kyiv.

They lie brazenly about the Ukrainians fleeing en masse to Russia and seeking asylum there; they constantly report about alleged persecution of the Russian-speakers in Ukraine; they lie about Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea repudiating their military oath.

They massively distributed a horror story that the Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh called upon the Chechen terrorists to fight against the Russians – despite the fact that this announcement was first posted on the organization’s hacked page on the Russian social network VKontakte and, almost immediately, was denied by Yarosh himself.

I am honestly surprised by why [Russian TV presenter] Kiselev has not yet taken a ride on the Lviv metro and has not disclosed how its passengers cook borsch out of Russian babies. Informationally “advanced” Ukrainians and Russians have long been mocking Channel 1’s stories and creating spoofs featuring its host Dmitry Kiselev.

Indeed, all of this would have been really funny, had it not been so sad. The thing is, a significant number of Ukrainians trusts this misinformation. Results of a survey conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation suggest that 35-40% of residents of Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions learn their news primarily from the Russian TV. This number indicates just how threatening Russian propaganda really is.

Both Ukrainian and Russian media experts have repeatedly stressed the fact that news on Ukraine presented by the Russian mass media are permeated in lies and intentional manipulations. For instance, the Russian Civic Council for Complaints against Media recognized Dmitry Kiselev as a misinformer. Russian experts reach such conclusion after analyzing just a single installment of his program Vesti aired at the very beginning of the protests in Ukraine, on December 8, 2013. They referred to this segment as “misinformation addressed to the Russian TV viewer.”

At the same time, the level of lies and manipulations is constantly increasing. Predictably, the new Ukrainian government found itself unprepared for such a large-scale information war.

Presently, a team from the Kyiv Mohyla School of Journalism, which founded the StopFake portal, is attempting to track these lies and formulate rebuttals. Impressive results of the analysis of Russian TV channels’ news installments are also available on the site of Telekrytyka.

Russian experts launched a similar monitoring several days ago, publishing their findings on social networks (Anti-propaganda: Analysis of News Installments). According to their findings, the content of some installments consist of up to 90% manipulations.

The fact that the Russian lies do, unfortunately, have real impact on people is supported by the results of independent surveys. In particular, data by a non-governmental Russian think tank, Levada Center show that a relative majority of the Russian residents are convinced that “the Russians in Ukraine are really threatened by nationalists and gangsters, and that only the Russian troops will be able to protect them from the threat of violence.”

This is despite the fact that during all this time neither Ukrainian, nor Russian journalists were able to find and confirm at least one incident of attack against the Russians by these so-called “nationalists,” least of all in Crimea.

Researchers themselves note that the arguments put forward by those who recognize the legality of incursion into Crimea fully correspond to those presented by the TV channels. The first argument goes that “Crimea and eastern regions are, in essence, Russian territories, and Russia has the right to use military force to protect its population” is supported by 35% of respondents.

The second argument is that “the Ukrainian state has collapsed, there is threat to the life and security of Ukraine’s population, and putting things in order there requires significant and unusual measures,” supported by 17%, reports Levada Center. Overall, researchers have referred to the Russian propaganda in Crimea and Ukraine as unprecedented throughout the entire post-Soviet era.

In the meantime, Russian mass media that dare to cover events objectively have come under  pressure. Over the past few days, the following media have reported censorship of their coverage of events in Ukraine: portal, Dozhd/Rain TV channel, Echo Moskvy radio,,, The Daily Journal, and the Russian Planet. There are attempts to deny to the Russian viewer the ability to see events in Ukraine from another perspective. But we wish this was limited just to the Russian viewer.


Translated by Olga Ruda, edited by Mariana Budjeryn


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