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EU officially boots Russia’s RT, Sputnik outlets

Kremlin-backed media outlets RT and Sputnik are officially banned in the EU as of Wednesday morning, in a move meant to crack down on Russian disinformation amid Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The sanctions against the news groups were published in the EU’s Official Journal, effectively providing legal grounds to implement the Commission and EU governments’ decision to take both Russian state-run organizations off the air and offline within the bloc.

The EU’s exceptional move is far-reaching and covers any means of transmission or distribution, such as cable, satellite, Internet Protocol television, internet service providers, video-sharing platforms and applications carrying content from RT and Sputnik. Licenses, authorizations and distribution agreements will also be suspended. 

The sanctions target Sputnik as well as five legal entities of RT, formerly known as Russia Today: RT English, RT UK, RT DE for German-language reports, RT France and RT en Español for Spanish-language reports. 

“We are convinced that we have our legal basis and we actually expect these measures to be challenged. We have independent courts that will review our measures if there is an application and we will defend them in court,” an EU official told reporters ahead of the sanctions’ publication. 

“[The measures] are also limited in time, because they should be maintained until the aggression is put to an end and until Russia and its media outlets cease to conduct propaganda actions against the Union and the member states,” the EU official added.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the plans Sunday to ban RT and Sputnik as part of a wider package of sanctions in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. RT has been described in the West as a tool of Moscow’s propaganda machine, aiming to manipulate public opinion through the spread of pro-Russian rhetoric and justify its invasion — and the EU’s quick action is part of a massive information war unfolding both online and offline. 

Shortly after von der Leyen’s announcement, questions started to emerge about what legal grounds would be used to actually implement the unprecedented prohibition.

Now that the sanctions are officially approved and published, the ball falls in EU capitals’ court to put them into practice. “Media regulators will be in touch with economic operators in territories to make sure the measures are implemented,” another EU official told reporters.

On Tuesday, Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová and Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton met with the chair and members of the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services (ERGA) to discuss how the ban would effectively work.

Both called on the media watchdogs to ensure the sanctions are imposed “immediately,” a Commission official said after the meeting. “ERGA members expressed broad support towards a coordinated EU action given the emergency of the situation,” the official added. 

RT and Sputnik are already much harder to find online. 

Since the announcement Sunday of the plans for the ban, Google’s YouTube and News Search, Facebook’s parent company Meta and TikTok have cut access to both outlets (Russia has officially asked the three companies to reverse course). Appl?e, Microsoft and Google scrapped them from their mobile app stores. RT France’s Telegram channel was also deactivated Tuesday afternoon in the country.

Twitter said on Wednesday it will take down the accounts RT and Sputnik from its platform when the EU sanctions take effect. On Tuesday, French Digital Secretary of State Cédric O slammed the social media platform for not taking stronger action against the Russian outlets: “Twitter is always, always the last one to react, and always the one not to do enough on [content] moderation,” he told French radio.  

The Commission and EU countries’ decision is not without controversy, as the debate and process to ban the news outlets happened behind closed doors in the Council in less than a week. 

The European Parliament “is kept in the dark. So far we have received no official information nor have we been asked to participate,” said German center-left MEP Tiemo Wölken. “We need to have a serious debate about whether fundamental rights (e.g. media freedom) should be interpreted differently in war times.”

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