On April 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia is taking steps to be independent from Western information technology in the wake of sanctions for the Ukraine war, including the creation of a “sovereign internet.”
Addressing a Moscow forum titled “Digital International Relations 2022,” Russia’s top diplomat followed now familiar lines of anti-U.S. and anti-Ukrainian propaganda. He echoed debunked claims of “Western Russophobia,” “Ukrainian Nazism” and “U.S.-developed bio-and-chemical weapons,” and he blamed “the aggressive collective West” for escalating international tensions.
In a swat at U.S. and European Union steps to correct Kremlin disinformation, he lashed out at “Western, primarily American” internet platforms for “shamelessly” blocking Russian news.
“The West demonstrates totalitarian intolerance towards alternative points of view,” Lavrov said. “Democracy, liberalism, pluralism are not observed here. On the contrary, censorship and arbitrariness are intensifying.”
That is false. The totalitarian player here is Russia.
In fact, Western countries endorse freedom of speech and independent journalism at home and in Russia. It’s typically only outlets that spread outright, harmful disinformation and falsehoods that come under scrutiny.
On March 2, the European Union banned Russian state-owned RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik for spreading “systematic disinformation over Russia’s invasion in Ukraine.”
And since Russia first attacked Ukraine in 2014, Britain has sanctioned some two dozen Russian state-owned media outlets and affiliated persons, including RT and Sputnik, for “pushing out President Vladimir Putin’s fake news and narratives.”
Polygraph.info’s files are full of fact-checks debunking false, misleading or unsubstantiated claims from those Russian state sources.
The European Union has compiled a gargantuan database of Russian propaganda. Its latest comprehensive fact-check is titled, “Disinformation to Conceal War Crimes: Russia is Lying About Atrocities in Bucha.” The piece cites other independent fact checkers and journalists at the BBC, The New York Times, Bellingcat and the Insider.
As one BBC story notes, many of the Kremlin’s lies or distortions start out in Lavrov’s own shop – launching from Russian embassies abroad on social media and spreading from there.
But we leave it to the Kremlin’s top disinformation mouthpiece to debunk Lavrov’s statement for us.
A day before Lavrov spoke at the conference, Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of the Russian media conglomerate MIA Rossiya Segodnya, which includes RT, Sputnik and RIA Novosti, had words of praise for censorship. She claimed, in fact, that in order to survive, governments must control information.
Speaking on Russia’s flagship TV channel Rossiya 1, Simonyan advocated for more censorship, not less.
“We had two periods in our history of limited or no censorship, from 1905 to 1917. We remember how that ended, and during Perestroika and the following 90’s, we remember how that ended, it ended with the country’s collapse. No big nation can exist without control over information,” Simonyan said.
Granted, in the U.S. and Europe, fierce debate continues about how to best protect free speech while limiting harmful misinformation and falsehoods on social media and other platforms. But at least free speech is part of the debate.
There is no free speech in Russia.
Ask Vladimir Kara-Murza, a political activist and critic of Putin and the Ukraine war who has survived two poisoning attempts. He was arrested April 11 after a CNN interview in which he called the government a “regime of murderers,” The Washington Post reported.
After launching the Ukraine war, Lavrov’s boss Putin signed a law that punishes independent journalism about the fighting and makes it a crime even to call it a “war.”
His leading political opponent, Alexey Navalny, remains locked up in prison after barely surviving an assassination attempt engineered by state operatives.
And recently Putin called for a “self-cleansing of the nation” – that is, of opponents of the Ukraine war, whom he called “bastards and traitors of the Motherland.”
Immediately after Putin’s call for a cleansing, Dmitry Muratov, the chief editor of the leading (and now closed) independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was attacked with a can of red paint while on a train, causing damage to his eyes and skin. Muratov shared the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize with Filipino editor Maria Ressa. The prize recognized "their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace."
Alexey Venediktov, the chief editor of Echo Moskvy, another independent media outlet the Kremlin forced to close in March, found a pig's head and Ukrainian coat of arms outside his Moscow apartment. An anti-Semitic slur was included.
According to the Russian press freedom watchdog Roskomsvoboda, during Putin’s 22 years in power, the Russian government has blocked, without legal justification, more than 12 million information sources, including newspapers, news websites and blogs.
That sounds totalitarian to us.