Why a push to exclude Russian state media would be problematic for free speech and democracy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is seen on a TV screen in a hotel during a live news broadcast of the Russia Today (RT) channel TV

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia has excluded media outlets based in the U.S. and allied countries. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Radio Free Europe, Deutsche Welle, BBC, and other news sources are no longer legally available there. A self-imposed digital iron curtain has descended across Europe, enforced in part by the new draconian Russian law criminalizing the distribution of “false information” about the Ukraine conflict.

But the closing of the information space has not been one-sided. The European Union has banned Russian state media in Europe and U.S. companies have made it more difficult to access these media outlets in the U.S., thereby reducing the range of information sources available to the public here in the West.

In my view, these voluntary and legal exclusions of Russian state media are unnecessary and harmful attempts to mobilize society for the wartime emergency in Ukraine. Such restrictions should be ended as soon as possible and not reimposed or extended to other state-backed media, except perhaps under the gravest circumstances of actual war and blatantly unjustified aggression. These exclusions limit the view of the world available to the U.S. public and policymakers, and, by a well-understood and predictable process, they lead to the demonizing and silencing of valuable internal critics whose insights could help to improve the effectiveness of foreign and domestic policy. It would be a mistake to continue down such a dangerous and counterproductive path.

The new U.S. restrictions

In the wake of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, several U.S. companies banned Russian state media from their systems. Apple removed the RT News app from its app store. YouTube blocked the RT news channel. DirecTV dropped RT America, which led the English-language 24-hour Russian news channel based in the U.S. to shutter its operations.

Senator Mark Warner sent a public letter to tech company CEOs urging them “to prevent misuse of their platforms by Russia and Russia-linked entities.” But the companies were free to ignore such policymaker pressure—and some did. Facebook still allows RT to function on its U.S. platform while continuing to label it as “Russia state-controlled media.” Twitter also permits RT on its platform, with a warning that the account is “Russia state-affiliated media.” Moreover, the RT website is still easily accessible from any computer or mobile device in the United States.

The result of this private sector management of their own systems is that people in the U.S. interested in getting Russia’s perspective on the current Ukraine crisis, or anything else, have a number of more cumbersome—but still relatively easy—ways to access it.

The European Overreaction

In contrast, the European Union reacted much more forcefully. On March 2, the Council of Europe issued an amendment to its 2014 package of Russia sanctions banning the Russian state media outlets RT and Sputnik in Europe.

This ban is extraordinarily sweeping, applying to “transmission or distribution by any means such as cable, satellite, IP-TV, internet service providers, internet video-sharing platforms or applications, whether new or pre-installed.” In a follow-up clarification, European Union officials said that the order applies to search results and to posts from individuals who “reproduce” content from RT or Sputnik on any social media platform.

Part of the stated basis for blocking Russian state media organizations is that they are state-controlled and engage in propaganda to further Russian foreign policy aims. But these organizations have always been state-controlled and have always echoed Russian government propaganda. The new element is the emergency of the Ukraine war, where Russian propaganda could aid its war effort by undermining the domestic will to fight in Europe and Ukraine. This suggests that the legal ban on RT makes sense only as a huge exception to a background policy of openness.

European officials should make it clear that its legal interdiction of Russian state media is a rare exception, justified in their view only by the extreme circumstances of undeniable aggression and actual war in Ukraine. In a move in this direction, an unnamed EU official said, “This is not a normal situation, and that’s what makes this case so entirely different from any other restriction on freedom of information.” To be clear, I think the European ban is an overreaction even in wartime circumstances, but now that it is done, it is vital to cabin it and prevent it from becoming a precedent for further legal media bans.

But there is a risk that Europe will expand on its exclusionary approach instead of treating it as a unique measure justified, if at all, only by rare wartime circumstances. The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell and the European Parliament are considering a new mechanism that would allow the EU to sanction government-backed disinformation actors. MEP Sandra Kalniete, who is leading this effort, suggested it would target “Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes…” This appears to be an alarming move to institutionalize a system to exclude all state media of foreign adversaries from Europe’s information space.

The Danger Ahead for the U.S.

In 2020, Laura Rosenberger, now with the National Security Council (formerly, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund) urged the U.S. to “work systematically with the private sector and civil society” to meet the challenge of information competition with Russia and China.

Refining the system of public-private coordination on national security issues, as Rosenberger suggests, is a worthwhile initiative. But extending it to include coordination between national security agencies and private media and tech companies aimed at delinking the U.S. from hostile state media sources would pose great dangers for an open society.

An embargo on information sources under the control of foreign adversaries—even if arranged through a shared understanding with national security agencies rather than through compulsion—would create and maintain damaging information black holes. It might even be unconstitutional state action.  It would certainly limit knowledge of global developments at a crucial time when the U.S. public and policymakers need the clearest possible picture of the rest of the world, including Russia and China. And this includes understanding how these countries see themselves, how they view the U.S and its allies, and their vision of their own place in the international community. Seeing them only through the filter of domestic media is almost certainly a recipe for misunderstanding and ill-informed decisions.

Shutting out state media from foreign adversaries also makes it easier to treat domestic critics of U.S. policy as agents of a hostile power who are amplifying the enemy’s talking points. If it is legitimate to silence state media as agents of foreign propaganda because of what they say, commentators and policymakers are likely to think that it must be legitimate to label anyone who says the same thing as also an agent of a foreign power.

But this is a mistake. Internal critics should be encouraged to engage in constructive, fact-based criticisms of U.S. policies both here and abroad. These criticisms will often resemble criticisms by foreign adversaries since these adversaries are adept at pinpointing the weaknesses of the U.S system. But it is vital not to repeat the redbaiting mistakes of the first Cold War by silencing or discounting analyses and proposals from internal critics because of this similarity.

The example of international relations scholar John Mearsheimer illustrates the risks. He is perhaps the foremost exponent of the idea that the U.S. policy of NATO expansion contributed significantly to the current crisis in Ukraine. While his view has not been censored in the West, the warning signs of redbaiting are beginning. Respected commentator Adam Tooze describes how the Pulitzer-prize-winning historian Anne Appelbaum accused Mearsheimer of providing a narrative useful to the Kremlin, and how students at Mearsheimer’s employer—the University of Chicago—published a letter accusing him of being on the Russian payroll.

Mearsheimer is so well established that these minor incidents will not tarnish his reputation. Indeed, he is enjoying a rare moment of internet fame, as his 2015 YouTube speech about Ukraine has received 24 million views to date. While he is not at all a victim of oppression or exclusion, other less-established critics might not be so resilient. These examples illustrate a dangerous tendency that policymakers and commentators alike should reject: a style of debate and discussion that, while not at all the same as government suppression of speech, creates an atmosphere of fear that can silence the expression of views at variance with government policy. This dangerous tendency is made to seem legitimate by a coordinated policy of exclusion of foreign state media.

For generations, U.S. communications policy has been premised on the idea, articulated in the Supreme Court’s 1945 Associated Press decision, that “the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.” Rather than organized suppression and redbaiting, this policy of transparency, openness, and the free flow of information continues to be the best weapon in the U.S. struggle against foreign adversaries.

Apple, Facebook, and Google are general, unrestricted donors to the Brookings Institution. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions posted in this piece are solely those of the author and not influenced by any donation.