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European nations start to pull Russian networks after invasion of Ukraine

Countries across Europe are taking Russian networks, including Russia Today (RT) and Russija 24, off air following the country’s invasion of Ukraine this week.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin ordered troops into neighbouring Ukraine and a full-scale invasion and aerial bombardment is now underway. Reports on Friday said 137 Ukrainians had been killed on the first day of fighting as local forces try to protect the capital, Kyiv.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, originally a TV producer and comedy star who was propelled into the job after starring in local original Servant of the People in which a fictitious TV star rose to be president of Ukraine, declared martial law on Thursday. A mass evacuation of Ukrainian people into Poland and surrounding nations is underway, with males aged 18-60 being conscripted to stay behind and fight.

US president Joe Biden described the events as a “premeditated war” which will bring “catastrophic loss of life and human suffering.” The European Commission described it as “unprecedented military aggression.”

Europe and the US have responded with a package of economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia.

Across Europe, Russian broadcast networks, which have long been accused of carrying Kremlin propaganda, are being taken off the air.

In Poland, which borders Ukraine to the north-west, The National Broadcasting Council has passed a resolution banning RT, RT Documentary, RTR Planeta, Soyuz TV and Russija 24 from cable networks, satellite platforms and online.

Latvia, which shares a western border with Russia, has suspended several Russian channels with immediate effect.

The chairman of the National Electronic Mass Media Council, Ivars Āboliņš, announced Rossija RTR will be banned for five years, Rossija 24 for four years and TV Centr International for three. The country, along with neighbour Lithuania, had already taken RT off air in 2020.

The latest bans come into force immediately on the grounds that the networks pose a threat to national security.

“The violations are serious, and over the last two years, by restricting the operation of 41 Russian-related channels in Latvia with various decisions, Latvia has given a clear signal that we have protected, do protect and will protect our information space. NEPLP calls on all EU member states to use our evidence and to follow the example of Latvia by stopping the retransmission of these programmes,” said Āboliņš.

Estonia is also accelerating similar plans to bar Kremlin-controlled channels from broadcasting there within the next 24 hours.

The country’s Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority TTJA has started the process of taking channels including RTR-Planeta, RTVI, Rossija 24, REN TV, NTV Mir and PBK off air, with broad cross-party support.

TTJA director Kaur Kajak said: “Russian propaganda channels have constantly incited hatred and made propaganda, including war propaganda.”

In the UK, RT remains on air, though culture secretary Nadine Dorries has asked for an investigation into the network by media regulator Ofcom describing it as “demonstrably part of Russia’s global disinformation campaign.”

Dorries said: “It is essential that the UK looks to limit Russia’s ability to spread their propaganda at home.”

At Prime Minister’s Questions in the UK parliament on Wednesday, opposition leader Keir Starmer described the network as Putin’s “personal propaganda tool” and demanded its licence be reviewed. Russia has threatened retaliation against British journalists if its media is restricted.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said: “We live in a democracy and we live in a country that believes in free speech. And I think it’s important that we should leave it up to Ofcom rather than to politicians to decide which media organisations to ban. That’s what Russia does.”

In a statement, Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes said: “Recognising the serious nature of the crisis in Ukraine, we have been keeping the situation under close review and have already stepped up our oversight of coverage of these events by broadcasters in the UK.

“We are expediting complaints in this area as a matter of urgency and we will not hesitate to take swift action where necessary. I am confident that we have the full range of enforcement tools at our disposal and our track record shows that when we find a breach of our rules, we can and do take action.”

Ofcom previously fined RT £200,000 (US$267,500) for breaches in impartiality rules over its coverage of the war in Syria and poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the British intelligence agencies, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in the UK city of Salisbury.

Ofcom found that seven broadcasts of the channel’s Sputnik programme, presented by former MP George Galloway, and Crosstalk, hosted by Peter Lavelle, breached its rules on impartiality in March and April 2018.

RT contested the decision and took their objections through the High Court to the UK’s Court of Appeal where three senior judges finally dismissed its appeal.

The channel’s German version, RT DE, was taken off air earlier this year for operating without a licence.

RT deputy editor-in-chief Anna Belkina said: “Always a joy to see Western and particularly British politicians finally drop their hypocritical disguise in favour of open interference in institutions they touted as supposedly totally independent and wholly free from political pressure and interference.”

Global streaming giant Netflix has been investing in Russian original content, commissioning a slate of original dramas over the past 18 months – most recently Nothing Special, which focuses on a young actor and his charity work.

It will join other Russian originals on the streamer including a recently commissioned psychological drama and a series based on Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina, which it is also making with Fedorovich and Nikishov.

Asked about the status of these projects, Netflix told C21: “We don’t have any comments.”

A spokesman for Roskino, the state agency promoting Russian content abroad, said: “In terms of business, it is too early to say. No news and updates so far, everybody observes.”

Ukraine had been building up a successful television production industry, with companies like Kyiv-based Film.UA offering high production standards on low budgets aided by government tax breaks.

On Friday, European football’s governing body UEFA said this year’s Champions League Final, due to take place in St Petersburg in May, had been switched to Paris. Russian teams remaining in the three European club competitions, as well as the national team which is in Fifa World Cup qualifying, have not been expelled but will now have to play remaining fixtures on neutral territory.

The European Broadcast Union (EBU) has refused to expel Russia from this year’s Eurovision Song Contest which is taking place in Turin, Italy, in May. Organisers described the competition as a “non-political cultural event” despite pleas from the Ukranian state broadcaster UA: PBC to ban the Russian entry.

A spokesman said: “The EBU’s public broadcaster members in both Russia and Ukraine have committed to participating in this year’s event in Turin and we are currently planning to welcome artists from both countries to perform in May. We, of course, will continue to monitor the situation closely.”

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