A top Dutch official warned that the EU’s ban of Kremlin-linked news outlets RT and Sputnik must come with safeguards — reflecting some rumblings over whether the exceptional measure might set a stifling precedent.
In an interview with POLITICO on Wednesday, Dutch Digital Minister Alexandra van Huffelen said that while she fully supported cracking down on Russian state propaganda, the EU ban should be temporary and regularly reviewed.
“We should try to keep it as short as possible and as long as necessary,” said van Huffelen. “It should be the one very, very exception because we are in a state of war.”
A few days after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced plans to bar RT, formerly known as Russia Today, and Sputnik, EU countries on Tuesday approved sanctions doing just that. The legal texts were published shortly afterwards, effectively providing national regulators the grounds to take both Russian state-run organizations off the air and offline within the bloc.
The EU took the highly unusual move to cut off both channels — described in the West as tools of Moscow’s propaganda machine — amid a massive information war unfolding over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where civilian casualties are rising.
While the 27 EU governments unanimously backed the measure, three EU diplomats said the initiative had stirred some worries from a handful of countries, including the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.
“Some member states raised concerns regarding media freedom or possible counter-measures against EU journalists working in Russia,” said one of the diplomats. “But in the end, no one wanted to defend a Russian propaganda tool.”
Politicians, legal and media experts, as well as journalist associations, have similarly raised questions about the legal and political impact of the unprecedented prohibition.
Van Huffelen said it would be important to review the sanctions “over the coming days and weeks.”
The legal text of the sanctions states that the Russian outlet’s banishment “should be maintained until the aggression against Ukraine is put to an end, and until the Russian Federation, and its associated media outlets, cease to conduct propaganda actions against the Union and its Member States.”
The Dutch politician cautioned that Russian-state disinformation campaigns would carry on, despite the measures.
“We know that there’s all kinds of platforms, Russian bots and so on trying to mis- and disinform people,” she said. “So this will probably not stop just with what we’re doing right now. We have to review that as well and to see how this plays out.”
On Sunday, Facebook announced it had removed organized disinformation campaigns from Russian state actors and hackers using fake accounts.
Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Poland last week urged online platforms to ban RT, Sputnik and other outlets including Rossija and Rossija 24. They also called on social media companies to adjust their algorithms to promote trustworthy news.
Moving forward, van Huffelen said it was “urgent” to finalize the EU’s revamped charter on disinformation. The voluntary pledge — which could become binding when the EU’s content bill, the Digital Services Act, comes into force — would make social media behemoths like TikTok, Facebook and Google commit to making changes, including altering their algorithms to remove online falsehoods, offering more data to both users and outside researchers and limiting the micro-targeting of ads.
The European Commission, social media and messaging services, advertising lobbies, NGOs and fact-checkers are currently negotiating a new version of the code, expected by the end of March.
Laura Kayali contributed reporting.
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