Propaganda, censorship and limits of authority

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Ukrainian rescue workers and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from the shell-damaged maternity ward in Mariupol on Wednesday. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has dismissed accusations of an attack on a working hospital as lies and propaganda. [AP]

In a liberal country, the state does not even censor banners hung by football fans. For example, we don’t know what a group of PAOK hooligans meant with their recent banner reading “Hang on brothers”, but we can certainly guess. Yes, the banner displayed in the PAOK stadium should have been removed. But not by the police or a court officer – who have no such authority. It should have been dismantled by the owner of the stadium, which is PAOK itself.

Likewise, the European Union does not have to censor Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda in Europe. Do not unplug the online versions of Russia Today and Sputnik, even if, to paraphrase, the first casualty of this war has been lies. On the contrary, it would have made us laugh to read Putin’s continued claims that he felt threatened by the Ukrainians.

We mention online versions specifically because radio waves are something quite different. The electromagnetic spectrum is a very valuable resource, with specific and limited broadcast frequencies and wavelengths. It is also a public good. And just as a state has a duty to prohibit the use of its airspace by the aggressor’s bombers, it is well within its rights to prohibit the use of any of its public resources for any what his democratic society considers detrimental. The banning of certain broadcasts is not censorship, in the sense that it does not prohibit the propagation of a specific message. This is simply to ensure that the state does not allow the dissemination of, for example, false news.

A liberal state does not ban a message, even one that the majority may consider harmful, but it does not help spread it either.

In other words, a liberal state does not ban a message, even one that the majority may consider harmful, but it does not help spread it either. It is this fundamental principle which gives its legitimacy to the National Audiovisual Council. It is an independent authority whose mission is to manage our public good by setting certain rules and limits.

But the council has absolutely no authority over the internet or the print media, whose producers use private resources to get their message across. The responsibility for dealing with the kind of propaganda and fake news that Putin’s regime has been spreading for years rests with civil society.

In this sense, the European Union can decide that there is no place on the public radio waves of its Member States for the kind of nonsense and Putin poison broadcast by Russia Today and Sputnik, just as it can decide to ban Nazi propaganda. The Commission, however, has absolutely no authority over online networks and cable channels – absolutely none.

Freedom of information is a fundamental European value, and it must not be undermined, even in times of war.

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