Global media freedom under fire as RT faces UK sanctions
Arkady Smolin, RAPSI
A recent threat by UK media authorities to impose sanctions against RT for its alleged breach of impartiality standards is an ominous warning of a disturbing new trend: a global crackdown on freedom of the media.
When UK communications watchdog Ofcom blasted RT over the summer for offering perspectives in its coverage of the Ukraine crisis that have been broadly excluded from standard British reportage, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stepped in. “Let’s hope that our Western colleagues will be guided by the principles of the freedom of information, and access to [that information],” he told journalists last July in comments published by RIA Novosti.
In early November, Ofcom lashed out at RT once again, this time over a series of alleged violations of the UK’s impartiality standards. The regulator proceeded to put the channel on “notice that any future breaches of the due impartiality rules may result in further regulatory action, including consideration of a statutory sanction.” Such statutory sanctions could range from fines to a withdrawal of RT’s broadcasting license.
By tossing his hat in the ring, Lavrov lent the conflict a diplomatic edge, but the key issue here is not whether these grievances set the stage for a new Cold War.
Rather, what’s imperative is the extent to which the so-called rules of impartiality in fact foster censorship.
On the one hand, this is a rational approach because it guarantees the independence of media outlets that abide by the government’s rules of impartiality. On the other, it would appear to be irrational that a local news broadcaster can set its own rules, while its Russian counterpart is made to follow rules set by a watchdog.
This illustrates that there are two very different standards applied to media oversight in Britain.
British impartiality rules
On November 12, OSCE observers in the conflict-riddled east Ukraine released the following statement: “The [Observer Team] observed 630 persons in military clothing crossing the border at Donetsk BCP individually and in groups, mostly to Ukraine. On November 11, the [Observer Mission] observed a van marked with signs ‘gruz 200’ [‘Cargo 200’ which is a well-known Russian military code used for ‘military personnel killed in action’] crossing from [Russia] to Ukraine and returning several hours later.”
The next day, both BBC’s Russian and English-language news sites ran a story based on the OSCE report, suggesting that the statement provided evidence of the participation of Russian troops in the Ukraine conflict, thus appealing to their readers’ expectations. “Observers were banned from inspecting the van (marked with signs ‘gruz 200’),” according to BBC’s Russian news site.
Notably, the original report said nothing of the sort.
The English website quoted a Ukrainian security spokesman named Andriy Lysenko, who alleged — without providing any substantive evidence — that the vehicles mentioned in the report belonged "to the Rostov funeral service,” referring to Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city near the Ukrainian border.
Yet Ofcom does not appear to have threatened BBC with sanctions for failing to adequately substantiate its claims. And this isn’t the only incident that calls into question Ofcom’s impartiality requirements.
In 2012, RT aired a report on the Syrian crisis. The report featured a pre-recorded video with the Editor of Pan-African News Wire, Abayomi Azikiwe, who said: “The ‘backers’ of the Syrian opposition have opposed any effort aimed at dialogue to bring about a political solution to this crisis. They have refused to acknowledge any type of ceasefire.”
Ofcom considered this fragment a breach of the UK’s impartiality rules due to its contention that no alternative viewpoint had been presented in the report. The regulator paid no attention to the fact that the full live interview with Azikiwe had been broadcasted the day before, and that views of the Syrian opposition were highlighted at that time.
Yet on September 14 of this year, the BBC aired a redacted interview with then First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond. One of the questions concerned the Scottish independence referendum, a sensitive issue for London. Political editor Nick Robinson claimed that Salmond failed to answer the question. However, RT alleges that Salmond did answer, but that the answer — which accused the BBC of distorting facts in order to undermine the referendum campaign — was cut out of the published conversation.
The BBC's reporting of the Scottish independence referendum only fell under public scrutiny after Professor John Robertson of the University of West Scotland published a study on the matter last February, after having researched the issue of media coverage of the referendum for the preceding year.
"Broadcasts began too often with bad news for 'yes' and, too often, featured heavy repetition of such messages over several hours," according to Robertson. “So, on the objective evidence […] the mainstream TV coverage of the first year of the independence referendum campaigns has not been fair or balanced,” Robertson’s study concludes.
A BBC spokesman denied the allegations: "We reject claims of bias in our reporting of the referendum in our output. Our coverage of this major story continues to be covered according to our editorial guidelines on fairness and balance," the spokesman said, as quoted by the Guardian.
As far as we are aware, Ofcom has not taken any action on Robertson’s report.
American impartiality rules
In 1976 the 38th US president Gerald Ford signed into law the Voice of America Charter, which, among other things, stipulates: “VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.”
These principles have failed to line up with reality. “Voice of America and Radio Free Europe played an important role in winning the war of ideas against Communism during the Cold War. But more recently the US international broadcasting system has suffered mission drift: Its programs have at times run counter to U.S. foreign-policy objectives,” The Wall Street Journal wrote in an article published in May.
Mass media in general, and the VOA specifically, should be accurate, objective and comprehensive, ultimately serving the interests of a state that has occupied itself with restricting media freedom.
AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee recently laid out eight ways the Obama administration is making US journalists’ work harder. The list was then written up into blog form by Erin Madigan White, Associated Press Senior Media Relations Manager, published a post last September titled “8 Ways the Obama Administration is Blocking Information.”
“The fight for access to public information has never been harder,” White wrote, referencing Buzbee.
Whereas the White House once fought to bring its press corps overseas, it now prefers to keep journalists at home, giving them handout photos in lieu of access. Journalists are denied access to information crucial to properly understanding the trials at Guantanamo Bay, and public officials are threatened with termination in many cases for speaking with reporters, the blog laments.
The blog further took issue with a lack of information on the fight against the Islamic State. “As the United States ramps up its fight against Islamic militants, the public can’t see any of it. News organizations can’t shoot photos or video of bombers as they take off … In fact, the administration won’t even say what country the U.S. bombers fly from,” White wrote.
To the Russian mind, “impartiality rules” are not limited to the UK. They are also manifest in other Western countries whose media atmospheres tend to toe a certain line, but in most cases these “rules” lack the power of written or common law.
On October 1, 2014, Chief Editor of News Programs at the German ARD Channel Kai Gniffke analyzed the coverage of the Ukrainian conflict by his employees. He conceded that in some cases, the channel should have shifted its emphasis or select alternative terms to describe the conflict. The channel should have paid more attention to radical groups in Ukraine. In his blog on the channel’s website, he wrote: “Apparently, we did not tell our audience enough about Russia’s interests. We might have been more critical of NATO’s position.”
Tellingly, Gniffke believes that this happened because ARD yielded too easily to the newswire mainstream.
Ultimately, “impartiality rules” of Western media appear in practice to contradict the principle of the freedom of information.