“If we begin to consider it normal that the EU can block media, it could have important consequences”

Freedom Internet director Anco Scholte Ter Horst.ANP Image/Patrick Post

European Union member states unanimously decided on Wednesday to block Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik throughout the EU. Russian media outlets, both state-owned, are said to spread dangerous disinformation.

What was your first reaction to that block?

‘At first I wasn’t worried. It seemed like it was just the RT and Sputnik broadcasts, and they don’t broadcast in the Netherlands at all. So such a measure has no effect. But then the blocking was explained much more extensively: we also have to take their websites off the air. Then an alarm bell rang in my mind: what is really going on here?

‘The Public Ministry has also indicated that they are going to enforce it, so we have to implement the blockade. Otherwise, they can impose sanctions, criminally prosecute executives, or even shut down the company.”

RT and Sputnik regularly spread misleading or demonstrably false information. Why is it so bad that this information is blocked in the Netherlands?

First of all, the war in Ukraine is terrible and I want to completely distance myself from the content of these propaganda sites. But the erection of such website blocking has never happened before. Is that what we want?

‘The idea of ​​countering misinformation with censorship doesn’t feel right. We fight for an open internet, without blockades. We in Europe are ashamed of the increasing censorship in Russia, but now we are doing it ourselves.

“It also feels like an emotional, rushed, and undertested decision. The regulation was drawn up very quickly, and in many respects unclear. The blockade must last “until the aggression in Ukraine ends, and until the Russian Federation and affiliated media stop their campaigns of disinformation and manipulation against the EU and its member states.” That raises a lot of questions for me. Who decides when that is the case?

“I wonder if this action is proportionate. Decisions are now being made in a crisis situation with significant long-term consequences. I’m afraid this is setting a precedent. Are we going to block even more media?’

What kind of precedent would that be?

‘That the EU will more often refer to things as spam and block them. It is not entirely clear to me why these two media were selected and not the others. There are still more platforms spreading propaganda, what is the selection criteria?

‘In the future, it won’t have to be just about Russian propaganda channels. If we start to consider it normal that the EU can block the media across Europe by decree, that could have far-reaching consequences.”

So what can we do to prevent the spread of disinformation?

‘There must be a set procedure for determining what disinformation is, and we must come to agreements on how we can combat it. What I see now is that fake news is being combated on the basis of panic football and companies are taking matters into their own hands. So there is no independent assessment of what fake news is.

I doubt the measure makes any sense. The attention of these sites will probably only increase now that they are blocked. Anyone who wants this information will get it anyway. The channels are blocked in the EU, but not outside it. So it’s a flawed solution that can be easily circumvented.’

In your opinion, are there circumstances under which blocking of news websites is permissible?

‘Maybe, but then there must be a procedure for that. Normally a judge is involved if one wants to block a website. They check if the content is acceptable and if not, we take it offline. But that judicial intervention has now been skipped.

It is now considering taking legal action to unlock the lock. Why would this decision be illegal?

‘In the first place, the regulation is not clear and has multiple interpretations. In the Netherlands it is explained in such a way that we also have to block websites, but not in other Member States. So there has to be clarity on that.

‘We also have questions about the fundamental aspect. Under what circumstances do we, as a democratic society, agree to block websites? I think that’s a discussion we should have first. Now there is unexpectedly introduced legislation that looks more like censorship than a deliberate way to fight fake news.’

An earlier version of this article said that the European Commission had decided to block RT and Sputnik. That is not correct, it was a decision of the Member States.

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