EU’s ban on Russia Today and Sputnik is now in effect

The EU’s ban on Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik has just gone into effect after the bloc formally adopted the sanctions, meaning media regulators are now expected to monitor compliance, with the risk of fines being levied by national watchdogs across the bloc for any platforms found continuing to distribute the Kremlin-linked media firms’ content.

It’s a wide-ranging sanction on the distribution of RT and Sputnik and their subsidiaries* — covering not just traditional broadcast channels (like satellite TV) but also online platforms and apps, as we reported earlier.

While individual journalists at the two outlets are not being sanctioned at this time (the editor in chief of RT had already been sanctioned), the legal instrument includes an anti-circumvention clause — which could end up targeting individuals, i.e., if they are deemed to be trying to circumvent the restrictions on the channels.

This also means internet providers are expected to take proactive steps to ensure content from RT and Sputnik does not appear on their platforms, EU official said.

So, basically, just banning official channels may not be enough — if other users/accounts upload sanctioned content, social media and other tech platforms may be expected to take further measures to prevent the ban from being circumvented.

In addition to social media networks and video streaming services, EU officials said that in principle ISPs are also covered.

Given the broad range of digital distribution channels available, Commission officials acknowledged the challenge of immediately ending all regional distribution of the two channels — suggesting they expect a degree of “leakage,” although they emphasized that — legally speaking — compliance with the prohibition is now an expectation. 

While the EU says the sanctions against RT and Sputnik are time-limited, in practice, conditions attached to their removal make it hard to envisage the ban being lifted — at least while the current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, remains in the Kremlin.

That’s because the Commission has stipulated that for the ban to end, Russia must cease its aggression in Ukraine and stop its propaganda against the EU and its Member States. And plenty of media observers would suggest the primary purpose of a channel like Russia Today is exactly to produce and amplify anti-Western propaganda.

Why is the EU is singling out RT and Sputnik in particular? The bloc’s assessment is that they are key disinformation tools in a pro-Kremlin toolbox that’s being used by Putin to wage a destabilizing “information war” against the West, one that’s escalated into a bloody incursion into Eastern Europe via Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Commission officials, for example, flag the massive state budget (an estimated €1.3 billion in 2021) and other state support afforded to RT and Sputnik, as well as pointing to doubts about the channels’ editorial independence.

They also couch the restrictions as carefully balanced, emphasizing that they are targeting the two most prominent — and clearly attributable — instruments being used by the Russian state to engage in foreign information manipulation and interference.

And to back up that assertion, they point to a report by the U.S. Department of State analyzing the role of RT and Sputnik in Russia’s “Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem” as just one example — arguing the two entities are clearly “essential and instrumental” parts of Putin’s propaganda machine.

The EU’s response — sanctions targeted at the two media firms’ distribution — does not censor opinion, they also assert.

The Commission further highlights the major crackdown on independent media inside Russia over the past year — pointing to the use of draconian domestic legislation, especially its law on “foreign agents” to muzzle independent media and individual journalists who are seen as critical of the government — and describes Russia’s threats to professional reporters as unacceptable.

The firm message from the Commission is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has irrevocably changed the calculus; the EU’s tolerance of Putin’s propaganda machinery is over.

In a statement accompanying confirmation of the sanctions’ formal adoption, EU President Ursula von der Leyen said: “In this time of war, words matter. We are witnessing massive propaganda and disinformation over this outrageous attack on a free and independent country. We will not let Kremlin apologists pour their toxic lies justifying Putin’s war or sow the seeds of division in our Union.”

In another supporting statement, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, added: “Systematic information manipulation and disinformation by the Kremlin is applied as an operational tool in its assault on Ukraine. It is also a significant and direct threat to the Union’s public order and security. Today, we are taking an important step against Putin’s manipulation operation and turning off the tap for Russian state-controlled media in the EU. We have already earlier put sanctions on leadership of RT, including the editor-in-chief [Margarita] Simonyan, and it is only logical to also target the activities the organisations have been conducting within our Union.”

Asked if any more restrictions are incoming — given comments made by von der Leyen Sunday, when she said the bloc is “developing tools to ban [Russia’s] toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe” — Commission officials declined to comment on any specific policies.

But they pointed generally to a range of measures the bloc has been formulating over a number of years, such as its Democracy Action Plan and steps taken to tackle the spread of online disinformation via the Code of Practice, adding that the EU is building a coherent set of policy approaches and measures, including in areas like situational awareness and resilience building — which it intends to target foreign information manipulation in particular.

The RT and Sputnik sanctions slot into that wider strategy, EU officials added.

The legal basis for the RT and Sputnik sanctions is a unanimous decision by the European Council, under common foreign and security policy rules (article 29), along with article 215 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which provides for restrictive measures, per the Commission.

Free access to information is a fundamental right enshrined in the EU’s charter — but the Commission said it is confident these targeted measures will stand against any legal challenge.

Existing EU media rules continue to operate as usual in parallel with the sanctions, EU officials confirmed.

The full list of six sanctioned entities is: RT – Russia Today English; RT – Russia Today UK; RT – Russia Today France; RT – Russia Today Germany; RT – Russia Today Spanish; and Sputnik.