In the context of Russia’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine and tensions in Russia-EU relations, the so-called “information war” between Russia and the West has become a journalistic buzzword, a rhetorical tool in political debates, and a source of deep concern for Russia’s neighbors. As a recent study conducted by the The Finnish Institute of International Affairs has demonstrated over the past few years, Russia has exerted considerable energy to influence European public opinion by using strategic deception that aims at altering of the target audience’s perception of reality to secure strategic objectives. While Ukraine is still at the center of Russian propaganda efforts, issues such as the migrant crisis and the future of the European Union have been manipulated by Russian media to influence both domestic and foreign audiences.
As pointed out by the NATO Strategic Communication Center of Excellence, Russian information warfare is not static. The strategies of Russian information war constantly change, and its tools vary from mainstream media to social network trolling. Studying and countering the Russian cyber troll army is a challenging task that has been undertaken not only by NATO research centers, but also by civil society activists in the Baltics. Governments face the question of whether to limit the diffusion of Russian state media.
Latvia is seen as particularly vulnerable to Russian disinformation campaigns because of its ethnic diversity: according to the 2011 census, 27% of its inhabitants are of Russian descent. Even if Russian language media are more popular among Latvian Russians, they also impact ethnic Latvians. More than 90% of native Latvian speakers have some knowledge of Russian language, so Russian media are accessible to large numbers of Latvians. Such media sources could be used to impact Latvian society’s views not only on Putin’s domestic and foreign policies, but also on questions such as European integration, the refugee crisis, and LGBT rights.
Latvian authorities have restricted the broadcasting of Russian media on three separate occasions. In both 2014 and in 2016 the National Electronic Mass Media Council temporarily banned the transmission and diffusion of Russian state television Rossija RTR. In March 2016, the Latvian government body that regulates the .LV domain canceled the registration of SputnikNews.lv, a branch of the Russian government propaganda site. These moves were strongly condemned by the Russian Foreign Ministry, and after the closure of Sputnik website, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović expressed her concern regarding the future of media freedom in Latvia. The Latvian government justified its decision by referring to both Latvian national legislation and European sanctions against Russian Federation.
The most recent move against Russian propaganda, a six-month ban on rebroadcasting Rossiya RTR, was implemented after Latvia’s media regulator concluded that two of its programs Sunday Night with Vladimir Solovyov and Vesti Nedeli have violated the Latvian Electronic Mass Media Law. Latvian officials argued that statements made on Vladimir Solovyov program on January 18, 2016 violated article 26 of the media law that bans incitement to hatred and appeals for war and military conflict. Problematic statements included: Ukraine is a fascist state; criminals/fascists are in power in Ukraine; Ukraine is undertaking genocide against Russians; Ukraine is an aggressor; there can be no negotiations with Ukraine, therefore it is necessary to destroy it militarily; and Western countries support fascism in Ukraine. Latvian regulators drew similar conclusions about calls to bomb Turkey made on Solovyov’s show on November 29, 2015. Elements of incitement to hatred were also found at Vesti Nedeli June 6 special report on a conflict at the Latvian sea resort Jurmala between a Latvian-speaker and a Russian-speaker. In the case of Sputnik, Latvia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the activities of Sputnik were at odds with the European Union’s sanctions on Russia. Sputnik news outlet is indeed a subsidiary of Rossiya Segodnya news agency headed by Dmitry Kiselov, who is subject to EU sanctions.
But do these media restrictions work? Their efficacy is limited in the age of the internet. Three hours after sputniknews.lv was shut down, it was back online as sputniknewslv.com. Meanwhile Rossiya RTR programs, including Sunday Night with Vladimir Solovyov, can also be seen online. Latvia’s ban is less an attempt to stop the flow of information than a statement about its content. By denouncing the tendentious nature of Russian media, Latvian authorities affirmed their solidarity with the Ukrainian government and signaled to the Latvian population that information coming from Russian state-run media is not trustworthy. Whether this message was effective is still an open question.
In the long term restrictions cannot be the only answer to Russian information warfare. Creating alternative sources of information should be considered. In September 2015, Estonia’s public broadcaster started a channel in Russian. In Latvia, the right-wing National Alliance party, which is represented in the government, has opposed creating such a channel because it could demotivate Latvian Russian speakers from learning Latvian. However, even though a special channel was not created, funding for Russian-language programs in public media was increased, though their reach is increasing slowly. In January 2015, the privately owned First Baltic Channel news still attracted two to four times more viewers than Russian-language news from the public broadcaster.
While the capacity of the Baltic public broadcasters to offer an alternative to Russian state media content is unproven, Latvian telecommunications company Lattelecom has increased its English- and Russian-language news offerings, including the Russian independent TV channel Dozhd (Rain) and Ukraine’s Russian-language TV channel Espreso. These efforts to provide access to a wide range of information sources should be pursued and accompanied by a long-term commitment to education. The task of the state is to enable citizens to make informed decisions based on critical analysis and comparison. Inclusion of media literacy in the national school curriculum would be an important step toward these goals. It should be preceded by special training programs for teachers and educators. As noted before, restrictions on Russian media are more symbolic than practically effective. In the internet age the possibilities for democratic states to limit or control the flow of information are limited. At the end of the day, choices regarding media preferences are made at the individual level.