Lithuania has banned a Russian TV channel for “inciting discord, warmongering [and] spreading disinformation” according to the country’s media regulator.
RTR Planeta, the international broadcasting service for the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), a powerful state run media empire that operates more than a dozen TV channels and radio stations, will be taken off the air after alleged “incitements to hatred” during the Sunday Evening With Vladimir Solovjev program.
“This program has repeatedly spread such information, therefore its broadcast was suspended for three months,” Birute Kersiene, a spokesperson for the Radio and Television Commission of Lithuania told AFP.
According to Euro News, which is part-owned by RTR Planeta’s parent company, VGTRK, one bone of contention was the continued presence of firebrand, ultra-nationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky who is know for his inflammatory statements on Solovjev’s show.
Last year he was, according to Lithuanian media reports, quoted in an interview with Rossiya 24 as saying: “The Baltic States, Poland – they are doomed. They will be swept away. Nothing will remain there. They should sober up, the leaders of these dwarf nations … Eastern European countries are exposing themselves to, shall I say, the danger of complete annihilation.”
VGTRK is run by one Oleg Dobrodeev, a staunch Putin ally who was appointed chairman in 2000, the same year Putin came to power. “Dobrodeev was one of the founding members of the independent NTV Channel, but under Putin drastically changed his attitude to independent television in Russia,” wrote Oleg Panfilov, a dissident Russian journalist in his 2005 paper titled Putin and the Press: The Revival of Soviet-style Propaganda for London based think tank The Foreign Policy Centre. “Dobrodeev started to consolidate all state provincial television and radio companies, thus creating a massive and powerful propaganda network.”
The ban is the latest move in a rapidly cooling media environment in the Baltic States, where significant numbers of Russian speakers live and whom get most of their news from Russian sources. To counter what they see as pro-Russian propaganda, the three countries – with the help of the European Union – have vowed to set up supposedly impartial Russian language TV stations.
Whilst Russia has frequently been accused by international media watchdogs for its restrictions on the freedom of the press, governments from the Baltic states have responded by threatening suspensions of TV stations and banning prominent pro-Russian journalists, politicians and even singers from entering their borders.
On 9 March a coalition of press freedom groups including the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and the World Press Freedom Committee decried the potential banning of Russian language TV stations in Lithuania. “While we do understand that the objection to their broadcasts is that in the current tense situation in Eastern Europe they are seen as propagandistic and polemical, we view their banning as the wrong approach to counteracting their messages,” they wrote in a letter to Lithuania’s president. “Not only is this in contradiction with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international free speech standards, but we also consider such bans to be counterproductive.”
If any ban was put into effect, the letter continued, they “would almost inevitably be seized upon by the Russian authorities to justify bans on broadcasts by independent news media from other countries”.
But the RTR Planeta ban was confirmed anyway, causing further complications as the station is registered in Sweden, an EU state. The EU has strict rules regulating broadcast freedoms.
When contacted by the Index on Censorship before the ban was announced, the Radio and Television Commission of Lithuania stated that they had contacted their Swedish counterparts about RTR Planeta and reaffirmed their belief that RTR Planeta had broken EU broadcasting rules.
While Article 3 of the EU’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive strictly prohibits the banning of retransmitted programmes, Lithuania’s regulator pointed to Article 6, which states that EU countries must ensure no programmes “contain any incitement to hatred based on race, sex, religion or nationality.”
“It is the first time in the history of the European Union that a regulatory body has taken the decision to take the whole channel completely off-air,” the chairman of Lithuania’s media regulator, Edmundas Vaitiekunas, told Euro News. “Maybe someone will argue over the subtleties of the case, but we think that we addressed all the legal criteria.”
The ban is due to come into effect on 13 April.