Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Does Dropping Russian TV in Ukraine Count as Censorship?

Working in a media rights organisation, one often runs up against instances of censorship. We gather data on cases of censorship, we communicate with journalists who have fallen foul of it and have chosen to speak out, and we track censorship through our media monitoring. What we know about censorship isn’t something we have learnt from Wikipedia.

When the possibility of shutting down Russian TV channels in Ukraine was first raised, some Western politicians described it as censorship. And if you do not go any deeper, it really might seem that this would constitute pressure on freedom of speech.

But… there is one “but”.

Freedom of speech does not equate to lies and manipulation, especially when that leads to conflict. Banning lies is not censorship; it is common sense.

One could spend a lot of time arguing whether this move is feasible or effective. Plenty has been said for and against it, and strong cases have been made for both sides of the argument.

These moves cannot, however, be regarded as censorship or as pressure on the media. They need to be enacted through legal means, as opposed to what happened to Ukrainian media in Crimea, which were just switched off in a lawless manner.

There are currently no legal mechanisms for enforcing the demand by the National Council of Provider Companies to switch off Russian TV. It has therefore not been carried out in full – only one provider has done so in the Donetsk region and none at all in Lugansk and Crimea.

There are nevertheless legal grounds that could be applied. Ukraine’s constitution and international treaties contain special provisions for restricting freedom of speech under certain circumstances.

"If the Ukrainian Security Service identifies cases where Russian media have engaged in propaganda and incitement, it can take legal action. There have already been court orders requiring ISPs to disconnect certain media," says Roman Golovenko, a lawyer with the Institute for Mass Information.

For example, the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms from 1950, which Ukraine ratified in 1997 and Russia in 1998, states that freedom of expression may be subject to restrictions or penalties “prescribed by law and… necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime….” (Article 10, point 2)

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, which came into force in Ukraine and Russia in 1976, sets out similar rights. It allows restrictions on free expression that are established in law and are necessary "for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”. (Article 19, point 3)

The Ukrainian constitution also provides for the restriction of free expression "in the interests of national security, territorial integrity.... "(Article 34)

What we are witnessing in Crimea is a direct assault on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The Russian media are making adroit use of lies and manipulation as instruments to justify this.

The populations of Ukraine and Russia are being intimidated by inventions devised by the Russian secret services about “Maidan militants", "Bandera-ites", "neo-Nazis" and "fascists" who are supposedly going to eastern regions to oppress Russian-speaking Ukrainian, torture Russians, and burn down Orthodox churches and synagogues.

This sowing of hatred has already caused bloody conflict, particularly in the east of Ukraine.

The Russian media carry images of fighting in Kiev’s Hrushevsky Street to back up its claims of unrest in Crimea. They have told patent lies about large numbers of Ukrainians fleeing to Russia, about persecution of Russian in Ukraine, and about Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea renouncing their oath of loyalty.

One scare story that Pravy Sektor leader Dmitry Yarosh had called on Chechen terrorists to fight the Russians was given mass circulation. In fact, that message was posted on Pravy Sektor’s non-functioning Vkontakte page, and was almost immediately refuted by Yarosh.

I really wonder why [leading Moscow journalist] Dmitry Kiselyov has not yet travelled to the Lviv Metro system to show people boiling Russian babies into soup.

Better-informed Ukrainian and Russians have long made fun of Russian’s First Channel and created parodies of its anchorman Kiselyov.

It would be comical if it were not so sad, since a fair proportion of Ukrainians believe this disinformation. A poll by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation showed that 35 to 40 per cent of residents of southern and eastern Ukraine get their news solely from Russian television. That figure shows how alarming Russian propaganda is.

Ukrainian and Russian media experts have underlined that the majority of Russian news coverage on Ukraine is imbued with lies and deliberate manipulation. The Public Press Complaints in Russia has deemed Dmitry Kiselyov’s output to be disinformation. And those findings were derived from a single edition of the Vesti news programme on December 8, at the start of the Ukrainian protests. They described the bulletin as "misinformation aimed at Russian viewers".

The level of deception and manipulation is increasing steadily. Predictably enough, the new Ukrainian government proved ill-prepared for an information war on this scale.

The Mohyla School of Journalism set up the StopFake resource to track and counter these lies. An impressive analysis of Russian TV news output can be found on Telekritika. A few days ago, Russian experts started a similar study, pubslishing it on social networks as Anti-Propaganda: Analysis of News Bulletins, indicating that recent news output consists of up to 90 per cent manipulation.

Other independent surveys show how the lies really do have an effect on people. Data from the Russian Levada Centre show that a relative majority of citizens agree that "Russians in Ukraine are genuinely under threat from nationalists and bandits, and only Russian troops can protect them from threats of violence".

This despite the fact that in all this time, neither Ukrainian nor Russian journalists have found a single case where "nationalists" have attacked Russians, especially in Crimea.

The Levada Centre Researchers note that people who see the Crimea invasion as legal cite arguments that are wholly consistent with the TV output. First, that “Crimea and the eastern regions are really Russian territory, and Russia has a right to use military force to protect its population". (35 per cent of respondents agreed in the Levada Centre survey.) Second, that "the Ukrainian state has collapsed, the life and safety of the population are under threat, and restoring order necessitates extraordinary measures". (17 per cent support.)

Researchers say Russian propaganda on Crimea and on Ukraine generally is quite unprecedented for the post-Soviet period.

Those Russian media that chose to report objectively are under pressure., Dozhd TV, Ekho Moskvy radio,,, the Yezhednevny Zhurnal magazine, and Russkaya Planeta have all reported censorship on account of their Ukraine coverage in recent days.

Attempts are being made to deprive Russian viewers of opportunities to see a different perspective on events in Ukraine. If only it were just Russian viewers who were affected by this.

Irina Chulivska works for the Institute of Mass Information in Ukraine.

This article republished from Ukrainska Pravda with kind permission.

Original article in Ukrainian.