When “journalism” becomes disinformation

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Estonia’s decision to deny press accreditation to employees of Russian government-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya for the past month’s informal meeting of EU foreign ministers led the Kremlin to falsely accuse the country of violating freedom of expression. This raises the question of whether freedom of the press applies to a state-owned disinformation tool. The answer requires the West’s unified approach.

In late August, the Estonian presidency of the EU Council refused Rossiya Segodnya’s request to have three of its journalists cover the 7-8 September meeting in Tallinn. Russia’s Foreign Ministry reacted by claiming that Estonia was infringing upon the rights of Russian journalists and restricting both freedom of speech and access to information. The Kremlin-linked media channel—Sputnik’s unknown brother in Estonia, amplified these messages with five nearly identical stories in the space of a few days.

The UK-based Index on Censorship also picked up the story, deleting the original accusation but tweeting at the Estonian Public Broadcasting news nine times. Ricardo Gutiérrez, general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, accused Estonia of launching a “serious attack on media freedom.” He said that “any accreditation requirements must be in compliance with the conditions established in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights,” and urged the Estonian government to implement the OSCE’s recommendation on accreditating foreign journalists. Based on this information, Harlem Désir, the OSCE’s representative on media freedom, urged Estonia to reconsider its denial of accreditation to the three Russian journalists.

And here lies the core of the problem: Russia’s Foreign Ministry, pro-Kremlin media, the Index on Censorship, the European Federation of Journalists and Harlem Désir were all talking about freedom of speech, media freedom and the rights of journalists. Estonia values these highly. In the World Press Freedom Index 2017 compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Estonia ranks 12th—well ahead of the United Kingdom (40th), the United States (43rd), Russia (148th) and North Korea (last at 180th). Both Estonian and EU regulations, as stated in the Estonian Constitution and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, guarantee freedom of expression in Estonia. The question is: does the decision to deny press accreditation to Rossiya Segodnya violate any of these principles?

This is a two-part question. The first part is simple: did Estonia’s denial of credentials restrict press freedom or freedom of speech? It did not. Estonia has never censored Rossiya Segodnya stories, nor has it ever restricted journalists’ access to information. All information provided to journalists at this month’s EU meeting is available online.

The second question is more complicated: is Rossiya Segodnya—a state-owned propaganda and disinformation tool—journalism or not? If not, do its employees have the same rights journalists have—for example, the right to press accreditation?

For several reasons, the answer is no.

First, as the Kremlin itself admits, Rossiya Segondya’s official purpose is “to report the state policy of the Russian Federation.” Both Dmitry Kiselyov, head of Rossiya Segondya, and Elena Cherysheva, editor-in-chief of Sputnik’s Estonian Service, have expressed the same sentiment. RT’s non-journalistic characteristics have also been pointed out by former RT employees.

Second, the European Parliament resolution on strategic communication to counteract anti-EU propaganda by third parties has characterized RT as a Russian government tool, and Sputnik as s pseudo-news agency. According to the resolution, such outlets are part of a larger subversive campaign to weaken the EU. Inciting hatred cannot “hide” behind freedom of expression, it emphasized, adding that member states must actively work to counter hostile information operations on their territories that aim to undermine their interests. French President Emmanuel Macron called RT and Sputnik “agents of influence,” saying the two organizations “did not behave like press outlets, but…like agents of influence and propaganda” which spread “serious falsehoods.”

Third, a report by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence named RT “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.” It said Russia’s state-run propaganda machine serves as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.

Fourth, the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, has suggested that the U.S. government should enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act against RT. This, it says, would “alert the American people to Russia’s efforts and limit Russia’s ability to disguise its ‘information warfare’ as legitimate media activity.”

And finally, a tool exists to differentiate journalism from disinformation. Rossiya Segodnya fails all three categories: it is not accurate, it is not balanced and it does not use credible sources.

Based on this criteria, it is questionable that Rossiya Segodnya could be accurately categorized as journalism. If it is not journalism, it is also doubtful that a non-journalist organization has the right to demand accreditation meant for journalists.

The fact that we still have to ask these questions over and over again shows that European laws and regulations are not equipped to deal with disinformation weaponized by the state and disguised as a media. To change that, the West needs a unified approach to distinguish state-owned disinformation tools from journalism.