Europe must support free press in Russia – POLITICO

Claude Moniquet is co-CEO of the Center for Strategic Intelligence and Security. He is a former agent of the General Directorate of External Security and a former journalist.

Triggered on February 24, the Russian aggression against Ukraine was quickly followed by a massive commitment from Europe.

The commitment took the form of arms supplies, a constant flow of intelligence to support Ukrainian military operations and the adoption of several rounds of sanctions – with the avowed aim of bringing the Russian economy to its knees – all accompanied by the expulsion of hundreds of people. “diplomats” and the political isolation of the Kremlin.

On closer inspection, however, this strategy lacked an essential element: doing everything possible to ensure free and objective information for Russian society. And it is high time for Europe to act in favor of the country’s free press.

The current figures speak for themselves: before the outbreak of the war against Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating was around 65%. Four months later, it rose to 85%.

Of course, coming from a country where the authorities are constantly manipulating the facts to create a “parallel truth”, one can doubt these figures, but they nevertheless reflect a reality: the majority of Russian society approves of the actions of its president and believes in the official version of a defensive operation against “NATO aggression” and the need to “denazify” Ukraine.

Seen from Paris, Brussels or London, it is difficult to understand such enthusiasm on the part of an otherwise peaceful people. But the reasoning is tragically simple – since long before the war, Russians were subjected to constant hype from state media and government insiders.

They tirelessly repeat the same lies: Russia is besieged by NATO—which wants to destroy it—and must defend itself; Ukraine was to receive nuclear weapons directed against Moscow; and the Americans had set up dozens of biological warfare laboratories there, developing viruses to decimate the unfortunate Russian population. Etc., etc. . .

This is the official replica, pitiful, not to say grotesque.

But on the other side? There are fewer and fewer to counter the narrative each day.

Not content with attacking NGOs defending human rights or the rule of law, following the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on independent journalism.

To ban or block the most popular critical media and silence journalists, the authorities are resorting to new laws, allowing them to “combat fake news” or label outlets as “foreign agents”. For example, simply using the word “war” rather than the Orwellian euphemism “special military operation” can result in 15 years in prison for the “culprit”.

At the end of June, no less than 166 independent media, journalists and bloggers were declared foreign agents. To name a few, the Moscow Times, Dozhd, Meduza and Novaya Gazeta are now dead or on borrowed time. Even the well-respected “Echo of Moscow” radio station had to announce its liquidation after being blocked by the authorities, when it was majority owned by the Gazprom group.

And today, the eyes of the censors are now fixed on RBK, one of the last independent media groups in Russia, which publishes, among other things, a business daily and broadcasts a television channel. The reason for its targeting: RBK covers the war objectively and impartially, broadcasting live and uncut the speeches of senior Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as European and American politicians. The basic principle of the group corresponds to the highest standards of journalism, with different opinions expressed in all its organs.

However, with the federal agency Roskomnadzor constantly monitoring every story about the war in Ukraine, RBK is on the verge of being shut down, and its current persecution presents a textbook case.

In addition to the new repressive laws mentioned above, the government has many other weapons to silence the independent press. For example, Rosneft, the state-owned oil giant, has launched several lawsuits against RBK since 2017, claiming astronomical damages, including a lawsuit in 2021 for $7 million – the equivalent of RBK’s pre-tax profit. .

Unsurprisingly, the media group has lost two of these cases to date, and in the coming weeks it may lose the third. And such a condemnation would obviously result in the bankruptcy of the company.

The eventual closure – or forced bankruptcy – of RBK will lead to the demise of one of the last remaining independent voices in the Russian media landscape, as well as job losses for more than 1,000 people, including almost 600 journalists with a proven commitment to freedom of expression.

However, to help defend and protect a “free” Russian press, the European Union still has a card to play.

For a few million euros, or even tens of millions at most – a derisory sum compared to the cost of the sanctions or the weapons delivered to Kyiv – Brussels could create a fund to help independent journalism in Russia.

Concretely, this aid could take various forms, ranging from necessarily discreet support for independent journalists and bloggers who choose to remain in Russia, to aid in the relocation of certain editorial centers outside Russian borders and the establishment of temporary offices in the West with journalists who wish to do so and their families.

Even more than before, in the 21st century, a war is not only won on the ground but also by speaking to the hearts and minds of the citizens concerned.

And yes, in this context, investing in free and objective information can also be a “grand strategy”.

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