Aleksandr Podrabinek on the closure of Deutsche Welle: ‘A pretence of equality’

15 February 2022

By Aleksandr Podrabinek 

Source: Radio Svoboda

The upcoming visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Moscow is, of course, primarily concerned with the threat of Russian aggression against Ukraine. It is however likely that, during the talks, the German Chancellor will raise the matter of the closure of the Moscow office of Deutsche Welle (DW) radio station by Russia, especially since journalists from this outlet will be accompanying the Chancellor on his visit.

The behaviour of the Russian authorities, who revoked the accreditation of DW journalists and closed the Moscow office of the media corporation, resembles that of a capricious child offended by the fact that other children do not want to play with them. The child is incapable of introspection and cannot understand that the alienation of their comrades is provoked by their own whims, overly ambitious demands and endless lies. The Kremlin probably can understand this, but they are unlikely to be able to change anything. This is how they grew up, and how badly they were educated by their parents and the crazy Soviet authorities.

Russia made no official complaints against DW. The editorial office was not fined, it was not taken to court, nor was it declared a ‘foreign agent’ or an ‘undesirable organization’. DW was punished not for an ‘error’ on its part, but in reaction to the decision by the German authorities to halt the broadcasting on German territory of the Kremlin’s RT television company, directed by Dmitry Kiselev and Margarita Simonyan. DW just fell between the stools, without any reason or reference to any legal norm. This is how the Kremlin took its revenge on the Federal Republic; this is easily done in Russia.

In the view of Kremlin officials, this ‘mirror response’ puts the two countries on an equal footing: they both use the same tools, which means that the two countries are equal. The Kremlin’s preferences for all sorts of ‘mirror responses’ that has flared up in recent years testifies to the desire of the leaders of the authoritarian regime to speak with democracies on an equal footing: Moscow demands recognition, and use of the same measures seems to confirm that recognition. In this case, as in many others, the Kremlin is acting craftily: in Germany, only RT broadcasts are banned, not the work of their journalists and representative offices. But in the end, that’s not the point.

Freedom is indivisible, either it exists for everyone, or it does not exist at all.

The fact is that the propaganda activities of Russian state media bodies (it’s hard to call them the press!) conflict irreconcilably with the rules and traditions that govern the free press in democratic states. Any fake newspaper or television channel will lose its readers and viewers as soon as it is found to be caught up in systematic lies based on its political bias. Foreign propaganda dumps are not threatened with closure, they are fed from the budgets of authoritarian states. Therefore, they are not competitors in the market of the free press. How to deal with them, without violating the principles of liberalism and democracy, is a tough and painful question for free countries, because it risks placing restrictions on the freedom of speech.

Four years ago, France faced a similar problem. At that time, President Emmanuel Macron announced the preparation of a law against false news spread by propaganda media. The idea was to introduce an accelerated judicial procedure for removing publications from social networks, closing accounts and even blocking websites. The state, as represented by its courts, would determine what is true and what is false; what is journalism and what is propaganda. As a rule, there are no objective criteria for this, and subjective criteria sometimes lead very far. Suffice it to recall the maxim of Louis de Saint-Just, ‘No freedom for the enemies of freedom’ It led the author to the guillotine and freedom to the realm of terror. Is the risk justified?

The rejection of lavishly funded cross-border propaganda by authoritarian states makes more sense on other grounds. Despotisms want equality with democracies? Let them have it! But let it be true equality in essence, not in form. They want access to the media realm in free countries? Let them provide the same conditions for the press in their own countries. And not only just special conditions for the foreign press, but for all media, i.e. for their own domestic press as well. Freedom is indivisible; it either exists for everyone, or it does not exist at all. The West should have responded to Russia’s complaints in the following way: ‘If you ensure freedom of the press in your country, then enjoy our freedom. On equal terms. Do you want to compete freely on the press market with our publications, win the hearts and minds of our citizens? Allow the same freedom of  competition in your own country. Then we will see on which side is truth.’

The West has responded to Russia’s many recent outrages with personal, targeted, sectoral, and other sanctions, which are essentially retaliatory, defensive measures. It would be more reasonable to replace the situational approach with an institutional one, so that decisions were not taken in each case separately, but on the basis of the state of media rights in the country which wants to have partnership relations with democracies. For this purpose it would be right for each democratic country (or, even better, for the whole international community) to adopt a comprehensive act on the rules governing equal partnerships among states. This would create a legal framework for regulating such difficult issues as granting freedom of speech to the state media of those countries that do not have freedom of speech.

Translated by Elizabeth Teague and Simon Cosgrove

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