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Europe faces moment of reckoning on state-media propaganda

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The European Union and its members’ capitals have scrambled to ban Kremlin-backed news outlets like RT and Sputnik, throwing a harsh spotlight on how ill-equipped they’ve been to deal with state-media propaganda.

“We need to rethink a number of our regulations in light of the situation of conflict, including when it comes to the media,” French Secretary of State for Digital Affairs Cédric O told POLITICO in an interview. 

“The issue of freedom of the press cannot be considered independently from the transmitter. Otherwise, a media that belongs to North Korea or a terrorist organization may have the same rules as the others because it has hired three journalists,” he added.

In the last decade, disinformation specialists have drawn attention to the impact of foreign state-backed media outlets disseminating official lines from Moscow, Beijing or Ankara in English, French and Spanish, expertly using online platforms like YouTube, Twitter, Google and Facebook to amplify their reach and navigating various loopholes to get around existing regulations.

Now, the European Commission and EU governments’ exceptional use of economic sanctions in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced European politicians and regulators to reckon with the bloc’s limited legislative arsenal and start looking more seriously into long-term rules for both foreign and European media.

The current legal framework appeared even more obsolete as the decision to impose hasty sanctions stirred controversy, with some MEPs, researchers and journalists’ unions raising questions about the speed and lack of consultation beyond the European Council.  

The Commission has been working in the past months on the Media Freedom Act — a piece of legislation expected before the end of the year. On Wednesday, the European Parliament called for new measures to revoke the licenses and accreditation of state-sponsored media “disguised as journalism” after finalizing an 18-month-inquiry into foreign interference. 

“The [Russian] playbook is not at all new. Disinformation, foreign interference, and propaganda can hamper our democratic processes, sowing hatred and fear that costs lives and threatens our own European freedom,” Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová told MEPs earlier this week during a debate on disinformation. “This is why we need both short and long-term actions,” she added.

Empowering regulators 

A flurry of tools, some still in the works, have been designed to fight against disinformation: the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation, the upcoming EU’s content bill, the Digital Services Act and initiatives from the European External Action Service, known as the Strategic Compass. 

In France, audiovisual regulator Arcom was working on a complaint against RT France before the invasion of Ukraine. But the regulator has found no solid legal grounds to impose a ban since 2017, when the Russian channel’s French arm arrived.

According to a French official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, that’s because both the Russian channel and Chinese state media are very well-aware of the country’s legislation and how to never cross the red line. “They’re always at the very limit,” the official said. 

RT France has appealed the EU ban imposed by the bloc’s leaders last week.

The head of a German media watchdog and former chair of the European Regulators for Audiovisual Media Services, Tobias Schmid, said that Germany in February had been able to swiftly ban German-language RT, which was operating from Berlin, based on “very clear” national-level rules around state-neutrality for media. Those rules could be included in the EU-level Media Freedom Act and benefit the rest of the bloc, Schmid said.

“It would be easier to find a regular way to do something against state-driven disinformation,” he added. 

Beyond regulators and politicians, NGO Reporters Without Borders on Thursday called for long-term legislation to empower media watchdogs to respond to foreign countries’ disinformation that pushes the boundaries of freedom of expression. 

A long-running issue 

By operating from cities including Paris, London, New York and Berlin and using a mix of local and foreign journalists, outlets like RT and Sputnik championed causes like Brexit and undermined Western elections including in the U.S. as part of broader propaganda strategies.

During the French presidential elections in 2017, Sputnik was one of the only outlets to relay unfounded rumors about Emmanuel Macron’s private life, as well as leaked emails obtained by Russian-backed hackers.

And Macron, who is said to be one of the driving forces behind the Kremlin-backed media ban, has long warned about the channels. “We let propaganda actors financed by foreign authoritarian regimes — that do not respond in any way to a regime of responsibility or journalistic ethics — inform and participate in the debate as journalists,” he said in January, calling democracies “sometimes naive.”

But Russia is not the only foreign power with an eye on influencing Europeans’ minds. 

Chinese-state media including CCTV and CGTN also pushed conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, justified China’s treatment of Uyghurs and spread its narratives about Hong Kong and Taiwan. 

According to French center-left MEP Raphaël Glucksmann, who led the European Parliament inquiry on foreign interference, Europe should open its eyes sooner rather than later to authoritarian regimes’ media influence including that from Beijing.

“We are always reacting to very high-level crises but we have the same issues with Chinese propaganda tools for instance,” he said. 

Glucksmann added that the EU should not wait to see if China invades Taiwan before making changes to its laws to tackle China-state propaganda.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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