Lithuania banned a Russian TV channel, RTR Planeta, last week, becoming the first European Union member state to take this step in an attempt to tackle what it calls Russia's information war. However, even supporters of the move say that bans alone will not solve the problem.
© RIA/Scanpix

Audrius Matonis, news service director at the Lithuanian national LRT television, rejects criticism that banning TV channels is inefficient or amounts to censorship. Those who say so, he insists, "should realize that what they're advocating is non-compliance with the Lithuanian law".

RTR Planeta rebroadcast in Lithuania was suspended quoting the Law on Information Provision to the Public which, among other things, prohibits inciting war, national enmities and making calls against state sovereignty.

RTR Planeta broadcasts contained statements that "Russia needs a small, but victorious war westwards - Donbass, Kiev, Brussels"; or that the United States was waging a proxy war against Russia by supplying and arming the Ukrainian army.

"We have heard outright lies and we have heard incitement of war," Matonis said on LRT show "The Right to Know".

He notes that broadcasting such statements went against the law. "We must shake the hand of the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission, if only for ensuring that criminal activity is stopped in the territory of the Republic of Lithuania," the journalist says.

Matonis underscores the vulnerability of the Baltic states to Russian propaganda in comparison to Western countries, where Russia also has a media agent, government-funded English-language news channel RT.

Audrius Matonis
Audrius Matonis
© DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

"Russia Today [RT] broadcasts in English in Britain and America, but there they operate in a highly competitive environment. One can choose what to watch - CNN, the BBC or Sky News. Whereas in the Baltic states Russia's TV channels do what they want - they have monopoly over Russian-language information space," Matonis says.

According to him, Russophone populations in the Baltic states as well as people for whom Russian is the only foreign language they speak are "condemned to one-sided brainwash without any alternative choice".

"One must conclude from this that prohibitions alone will not change the situation - we need to create alternative information sources in Russian for those who cannot get their news in Lithuanian or English," Matonis insists.

No solutions yet

Gintautas Mažeikis, director of the Political Theory Department at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, says he is not convinced of the purposefulness of banning Russian TV channels.

"Do we want and seek diplomatic and other means to influence Russian channels themselves, or are we only trying to cooperate with cable TV service providers so they change their packages and broadcast more Polish or Ukrainian TV? Or do we want to explain and encourage critical thinking among speakers of Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian and Polish who live in Lithuania?" Mažeikis asks rhetorically.

Gintautas Mažeikis
Gintautas Mažeikis
© DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

"By making this decision [to ban RTR Planeta], we do not even begin to address the issue, which requires serious consideration, serious debate - and action - about what to do with this propaganda in general. Because if you block it on cable TV, one can easily find it online," Aidas Puklevičius, journalist and author, agrees.

Phase-out of Russian language

Puklevičius believes that the situation should improve, once the generation of people who speak only Russian as a foreign language gives way to one which is more fluent in English.

"Russia will then lose its only vehicle for exporting soft power, something it has very little of - Russia did not invent Pepsi Cola, nor jeans, nor Hollywood. Russia's only strength is its ability to play on Soviet nostalgia and export those few film titles, 'oh, that gold of Soviet cinema'," Puklevičius says.

LRT news service chief Matonis notes, however, that Russia is investing a lot into expanding its influence in Anglophone sphere. IT specialist Džiugas Paršonis reminds of the army of "Kremlin trolls" that are so active online - volunteers or paid writers who spread pro-Russian propaganda and misinformation in comment sections of Western media and online forums.

Far from faultless decision

Mažeikis says that, while he commends the Radio and Television Commission's (LRTK) decision to take action against RTR Planeta, the procedure could have been carried out better.

"I am not sure if the LRTK's decision was faultless, since it publicly revealed who their experts were," Mažeikis says, adding that experts consulting regulatory bodies are usually kept confidential to protect them from pressures of interest groups.

"What happened after they disclosed who their experts were? These experts - the Journalists and Publishers Ethics Commission - refused to consult, for reasons unknown to me. So then they turn to the Ministry of National Defence, the department we all know [Strategic Communication Department], and ask for their expertise.

"Let's not forget that it is a statutory institution that must submit to decrees. Whereas what is at stake here is public information, i.e., area that is part of the democratic sphere, so one hopes that the experts are from a democratic institution. There is no basis to reject the [Radio and Television] Commission's decision, but there's some to criticize its asking for assistance from the Ministry of National Defence," Mažeikis says.

Matonis underscores, however, that it was the Radio and Television Commission, not national defence institutions, that made the final decision. Moreover, he says, the Defence Ministry's Strategic Communication Department has "the most consistent and farthest-reaching experience in the field". Still, he agrees the commission was ill-advised to publicly reveal their expert institution.

Mažeikis adds that the LRTK should have taken into consideration that some of the shows quoted in its decision were broadcast before Minsk ceasefire agreements in February. Russian and Ukrainian representatives agreed on a ceasefire plan in Minsk, after which Russian government-controlled TV channels "very slightly" toned down their aggressive propaganda, Mažeikis says.

Aidas Puklevičius disagrees. He says that there is no link between diplomatic efforts to end war in Ukraine and Russia's disinformation campaign.

"These are completely separate things, if only because the campaign demonizing the West pre-dates Ukraine. Russian televisions used to air their own versions, if you will, about the 13 January events well before that," Puklevičius says, referring to Soviet bloody attempt to crush Lithuania's independence in January 1991.

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