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03.01.2020 | Halya Coynash
Freedom of expression

ECHR accepts Lithuania’s right to expel Russian propagandists as threat to national security

   

The  European Court of Human Rights has rejected a complaint lodged by four members of a Russian state-controlled TV channel against their expulsion in 2016 from Lithuania.  The decision passed on 19 December and final is of importance for Ukraine and all countries who have been accused of restricting freedom of expression by taking measures against  aggressive Russian propagandists. 

The four Russians (Pavel Zarubin; Alexei Kazakov; Alexander Makarov and Andrey Melnikov) were all employed by Rossiya-24, and were sent to Lithuania in March 2016 to cover the Vilnius Russia Forum.  The event was co-organized by the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry and attended by important Russian opposition figures, like Garry Kasparov and Andrey Illarionov, who are extremely critical of the regime under Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Reports of the forum said that one of its main objectives was to shape “an intellectual alternative to the Putin regime and an alternative foundation for building a new European Russia.”

The Rossiya-24 team did not have accreditation and seemingly gained access to certain events through deception.  They were accused of aggressive attacks and provocation, with this reported both by the police and by the local media. 

The Lithuanian Migration Department, citing information from the Lithuanian Security Service that the men posed a threat to national security, ordered them deported and banned each of them from entering Lithuania for a year.

They all appealed, and claimed that “they had arrived at the Forum as journalists and had approached its participants in a polite and peaceful manner, seeking to interview and film them, but that some of the organisers and participants had attacked the applicants and their equipment. “

Anybody remembering Rossiya-24 journalists’ behaviour in Ukraine, especially in 2014, would have difficulty believing this, and there was considerable witness evidence of the men’s aggressive behaviour.  Their appeals were accordingly rejected by both the Vilnius Regional Administrative Court and, in March 2017, by the Supreme Administrative Court.  The latter found the men’s claim that they had merely been trying ‘to interview’ Kasparov to be rendered implausible by the fact that all had used mobile phones, rather than professional equipment.  This was seen as demonstrating that their intention had been to carry out provocative actions and cause a confrontation,  not to gather information. There were also grounds for suspecting that they had planned a similar confrontation on the last day of the forum.

The Court in Strasbourg considered that the evidence of aggressive and provocative behaviour placed a question mark over whether this was, in fact, a question involving Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to freedom of expression).   The Court was, however, prepared to consider the case under Article 10, with this making the decision to reject the men’s claim as inadmissible so important.

The applicants claimed that they had been expelled from Lithuania and banned from re-entering it because of their activities as journalists.  Citing Article 10, they asserted that “their actions during the Forum had been respectful and had not overstepped the acceptable limits of journalistic activity, and that they thus could not have posed a threat to the national security of Lithuania.”

The Court rejected this.  It found that, yes, the fact of their expulsion and ban on re-entry had constituted an interference with their right to freedom of expression, however it was satisfied that the measures had been lawful and carried out in the interests of national security.

It still looked into whether the interference was necessary in a democratic society and addressed the fact, challenged by the applicants, that the decision to declare the men a danger to national security had been taken in part on the basis of classified information from the Security Service.  ECHR was satisfied that all Lithuanian courts which considered the case had been given access to the classified information, and that the latter had been corroborated by publicly available data, such as the reports from the police officers.

The Court then “reiterated that the protection afforded by Article 10 of the Convention to journalists is subject to the proviso that they act in good faith in order to provide accurate and reliable information in accordance with the tenets of responsible journalism. “  Given the evidence presented, they could not conclude that the applicants’ conduct had been compatible with the concept of responsible journalism.  The judgement states only that the applications were rejected by a majority of the judges, without specifying how many disagreed.

These were specific applications and their rejection cannot be viewed as a pilot judgement in other cases, but it is, nonetheless, cheering. Throughout at least 2014, any attempts by Ukraine to expel propagandists from Russian state-owned media were condemned by, among others, the OSCE’s Representative on Media Freedom as being an encroachment on journalists’ activities.  Examples of flagrant lies and disinformation, such as the notorious fabrication about a ‘crucified child’, were dismissed, with the claim being that ‘discussion’ is needed, not bans.  This position would appear unchanged if we judge by the Media Representative’s recent collaboration with the Russian Foreign Ministry over a conference for such ‘discussion’ which Moscow openly used as a propaganda event.

There has been greater recognition since then of the need for measures against Russian disinformation, not least because ‘journalists’ from state-controlled media have themselves found that they cannot continue and have revealed details of the propaganda machine they served. 

In August 2015, for example, Colta.ru spoke with three former employees of mainstream Russian channels on condition of anonymity, and with Stanislav Feofanov, who formerly worked for REN TV.  One explained that, in February 2014, they had been called together by the Chief Editor, who told them that the 1970s had been child’s play to the cold war now beginning, and that if they didn’t want to take part, they should find another job away from information channels.  Most stayed.  According to one of the journalists who didn’t want to be named, the top managers had gone to meetings in the Kremlin after which they would turn up at the channel and hold their own sessions with a select few.  After that instructions would be filtered down.  It was all extremely secretive, with no open discussions.

Such exclusive meetings took place, for example, with the presenters who needed to know which terms to use, like ‘junta’, ‘fascist’ ‘Bandera supporters’ etc, with the same applying to subject matter.  After the pseudo-referendum in Crimea in March 2014, there had to be at least one story, if not more, from Crimea each day, with the accent clearly on how things were blooming and people happy to have “re-joined Russia”.

This war propaganda machine, writing about horrors in Ukraine (committed, of course, only by Ukrainians) apparently hit off, with the channels getting far more viewers, and therefore profit.  The instructions came from above – from President Vladimir Putin’s Administration - that channels should not be competing with each other.  They were all part of what the source calls a “general propaganda organism”.

In contrast to the Russian-Georgian War, the source says, the system was fine-tuned and well-prepared over weeks, months and years.

The Baltic Republics have had plenty of experience of Russian propaganda channels spreading disinformation about historical and recent events in their countries and it is no accident that they have supported Ukraine and themselves taken a harder line than most countries in combating Russia state-funded propaganda. 

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