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Two Years Into EU Ban, Russia's RT And Sputnik Are Still Accessible Across The EU

The Kremlin-backed RT media outlet can be easily reached inside the European Commission building despite the fact that its websites were suspended by the European Council in the early weeks of Russia's mass invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
The Kremlin-backed RT media outlet can be easily reached inside the European Commission building despite the fact that its websites were suspended by the European Council in the early weeks of Russia's mass invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

BRUSSELS -- Deep within the heart of the European Union, inside the hulking buildings of the "European Quarter" in the Belgian capital, there is glaring evidence of the bloc's weakness.

Without using a VPN or other circumvention tools, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service was able to access the websites and streaming services of RT -- previously known as Russia Today -- and Sputnik from the buildings of the EU's executive body, the European Commission, and the European Council, which establishes the general political agenda and direction of the EU but does not negotiate or enact legislation. The websites were accessible in a handful of languages despite the European Council's "urgent suspension" in the early weeks of Russia's ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Nearly two years after EU-wide sanctions were imposed to blunt Russian propaganda supporting the Kremlin's war on Ukraine, the websites of the Kremlin-backed RT and Sputnik media outlets are still easily accessible in many countries across the EU, including in the very institutions that drafted the regulations targeting them.

In Brussels, RT and Sputnik videos, text, and other content are available in English, French, German, Serbian, Spanish, and Arabic.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service's digital forensics team also used virtual private networks (VPNs) to impersonate users in 19 other EU member states and in each case it was possible to reach the RT and Sputnik websites without any problem.

The ease of access is a clear blow to unprecedented Western efforts to punish Russia for the invasion and to combat its carefully tracked trail of disinformation to try to justify or spin the conflict.

"The sanctions cover all means for transmission and distribution, such as via cable, satellite, IPTV…websites and apps," Johannes Bahrke, a spokesman for the European Commission responsible for digital economy, research, and innovation, told RFE/RL in a statement. "All relevant licenses, authorizations, and distribution arrangements are suspended."

Bahrke and other EU officials, as well as outside experts, say the problem stems from obstacles to implementation by the 27 EU member states themselves and their relevant bodies or agencies.

To enforce the ban, observers say, authorities in each member state must ask local service providers to eliminate access to the Russian-run websites. They say the safest method is to ban domains and specific website addresses on a national level.

"National authorities designate relevant government bodies or agencies responsible [for] implementing and enforcing EU sanctions, depending on the sector the specific sanctions designation covers," Tinatin Tsertsvadze, an expert on European sanctions at the Open Society Institute, a nongovernmental organization created and funded by billionaire George Soros, and who has extensive experience in the efficacy of EU policies with respect to its near and more distant neighbors, including Russia.

Bahrke said that in RT's case, the European Union sanctioned the media outlet in English, and also in Germany, France, and Spain -- and eventually in Arabic as well as RT Balkan in Serbian.

The Serbian case represents a special challenge to the EU and the West. President Aleksandar Vucic has staunchly refused to lead his EU candidate country into participating with anti-Russian sanctions, making it the only country on the continent besides Turkey and Belarus to avoid at least formally distancing itself from Russia. Sputnik began its operations there in 2019 and has an office in Belgrade, and RT launched its Serbian-language operations at the end of 2022, well into the full-scale war.

Sputnik content in Serbian, accessed from Brussels on January 30
Sputnik content in Serbian, accessed from Brussels on January 30

"It is up to the relevant providers to block access to websites of outlets covered by the sanctions, including subdomains or newly created domains and up to the relevant national authorities to take any required accompanying regulatory measures," Bahrke said.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service sought explanations from specific service providers in Belgium, where the EU institutions are based, and the Belgian Telecommunications Ministry, but two weeks have passed without a reply.

The bloc has otherwise demonstrated the urgency of its efforts to counter Russian influence operations through the media.

'War Propaganda On A Global Scale'

The EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, established its flagship EUvsDisinfo project in 2015. It describes RT and Sputnik as "not media organizations, but weapons of deception [by] the Kremlin." EUvsDisinfo's website says the project's main goal is to increase public awareness and understanding of Russian influence and disinformation operations, and to help citizens of Europe and beyond to develop resistance to digital information and media manipulation.

"Russia accompanies its illegal war against the Ukrainian people with information war and aggressive war propaganda on a global scale," Peter Stano, Borrell's spokesman at the EU's diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS), said in a January 23 statement, while presenting the report about foreign interference and disinformation.

"The Kremlin regime transformed state-controlled media into instruments of information manipulation and information warfare. That is why the European Union banned [a] number of them, including Russia Today and Sputnik from EU media space."

Yevhen Fedchenko, co-owner and editor of the Kyiv-based website StopFake, which was founded expressly to try to refute alleged Russian propaganda around the time of Russia's occupation and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, with Moscow's support for armed separatism in eastern Ukraine on the rise, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that EU restrictions imposed in 2022 "are now almost nonexistent."

"Russia is quickly rebuilding its capacities understanding that there are no serious efforts to prevent it from occupying European information space using all available instruments: rearming traditional media like RT or Sputnik; influencers in every part of the world; owning local media companies; and using [the] growing influence of [the]...Telegram [messaging service] and [the] China-controlled TikTok [social media platform]," Fedchenko said.

Borrell has recently warned of the consequences of failure, as massive U.S. and EU aid packages remain stalled amid talk of a stalemate in the war and so-called Ukraine fatigue in the West.

"We are much more vulnerable to this threat because information circulates at the speed of light," Borrell said in January as he announced new measures to tackle foreign interference and disinformation less than five months ahead of European Parliamentary elections scheduled for June.

'Major Threat To Liberal Democracies'

An EEAS report issued on January 23 suggested that he and other influential Western allies of Kyiv can't expect to be spared from further Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference (FIMI), specifically by Russia and China.

"The targets of FIMI attacks are truly global. In 49 percent of the cases analyzed according to the common framework, countries or their official representatives across the world were directly targeted 480 times [by FIMI]," the report said. "The country most often targeted was Ukraine, with 160 cases recorded."

But Borrell added in the foreword to the report that "FIMI poses a major threat to liberal democracies, which rely on free and open information." He went on to call it "a problem we need to address, inside the EU and together with our partners."

A number of outside experts say that in the absence of more strident action, the system of sanctions is outgunned by authoritarian regimes, including when it comes to media.

"Such a system will provide a proportionate and strictly regulated response to malicious propaganda and disinformation activities by third countries that systematically flout freedom of expression," Julie Mazercak of Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based media watchdog, told RFE/RL.

Terrestrial, cable, and satellite broadcasting platforms are generally simpler to police and control than the Internet, which can be accessed through a wide range of devices using different operating systems.

RT's broadcasting in national languages was banned in the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania before the EU sanctions that followed the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Experts on behalf of Belgian law firm Simmons & Simmons noted last June that "in light of the war in Ukraine" and an amendment to EU regulation No. 833/2014, the broadcasting licenses of Russian broadcasters had been "invalidated" and "broadcasting licenses or authorization, transmission, and distribution arrangements with certain media outlets, such as Russia Today and Sputnik, are suspended from 1 March 2022 onwards."

They added: "EU member states are not entitled to apply less stringent rules to broadcasters but may impose stricter rules on audiovisual media service providers under their jurisdiction, provided that these do not violate fundamental rights."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Gjeraqina Tuhina in Brussels.
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    Gjeraqina Tuhina

    Gjeraqina Tuhina has been engaged with RFE/RL's Balkan Service since 1996, when she started reporting from Kosovo. After the war in Kosovo, she moved to Brussels and since then has covered EU and NATO-related activities in the Western Balkans.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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