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In light of the three Baltic States’ and other Central and Eastern European countries’ continued struggle against Russian disinformation, Latvian President Egils Levits emphasized that international law needs to be improved to promote cyber security and limit sovereign countries’ vulnerabilities to information warfare (President.lv, February 14).
Speaking at this year’s Munich Security Conference (February 13–16), Levits not only described the struggle of Russia’s neighbors to deal with Kremlin-backed disinformation campaigns, but he also highlighted obstacles to a credible defense, such as European Union regulations that make it difficult for member states to ban or block TV channels for “only” broadcasting false information.
Last November, the Latvian National Electronic Mass Media Council (NEPLP) suspended the broadcast licenses of nine Russian TV channels in Latvia. The suspension is based on the fact that the nine channels belong to a holding connected to Yuri Kovalchuk, who is sanctioned by the EU for his role in undermining the territorial integrity of Ukraine. (La.lv, November 20, 2019).
News of the Russian television outlet bans highlighted the massive presence of Russian information in the media space of Latvia and other Baltic countries. And while experts argue that the license suspensions will mainly affect niche channel with low numbers of viewers, the list of affected outlets also includes Dom Kino and one of the oldest Russian channels, Peterburg–5 Kanal.
According to data from Kantar TNS, these two channels together account for 3.7 percent of total viewing time by Latvian audiences (Lsm.lv, November 20, 2019). Despite the bans, several private telecommunications companies in Latvia have promised to provide other Russian content to their customers. In total, around 50 Russian TV channels are broadcast throughout the Baltics (Nra.lv, November 24, 2019).
Ukrainian political film director Oleg Sencov, who in 2015 was sentenced by Russia to 20 years in prison on the false charge of terrorism, was released in September and checked into the Vaivari rehabilitation center, outside Riga, Latvia. Upon his arrival at the center, he felt uncomfortably surprised. “I was amazed that in Latvia, which is so active in supporting Ukraine and well understands what the Russian Federation is really about, I found that out of the eight TV channels available on the television set in the room of my sanitarium, four were Russian propaganda channels. Why do they not just ban them?” Sencov asked rhetorically (Sargs.lv, December 31, 2019).
Blocking a TV channel from broadcasting to the EU is not easy, however. “There are channels that officially are registered in the United Kingdom or in France. Russia is very clever in its use of European Union regulations.
As a result we are effectively not dealing with a Russian propaganda channel but rather with a Swedish or British one or someone else’s,” noted Inese Lībiņa-Egnere, the chairperson of the National Security Committee in the Latvian parliament. “This, of course, complicates our work because this single [EU] directive [on media] is based on safeguarding the principle of freedom of expression. Russia is using it illegally,” Lībiņa-Egnere argued (Lsm.lv, April 16, 2018).
In the past, the NEPLP suspended the channel Rossiia RTR (RTR Planeta) several times: first in the spring of 2014 for three months and then, in the spring of 2016, for six months. Six months is the longest period of time that national authorities of an EU member country are allowed to suspend a “toxic” broadcast. Even during the suspension, many of those Russian broadcasters’ official websites and YouTube channels would continue to offer unlimited and free streams of their programs (such as Rossia 1, Rossia RTR, Rossiia 24, NTV, Ren TV, and TVC), both live and pre-recorded. Currently, the Latvian regulatory framework has no right to monitor or block any website for disseminating “fake news” content (Delfi.lv, April 5, 2018).
Article III of the European Union Audiovisual Media Services Directive (alluded to above by Latvian parliamentarian Lībiņa-Egnere) provides that retransmission may be restricted by an EU member state government only if the broadcast incites hatred based on race, sex, religion or nationality, or in order to protect the physical, mental and moral state of minors. Lying and propaganda—as long as they are not fueled by explicit hatred—cannot not be restricted.
Lithuania, which recently announced a ban on Rossiia RTR, has been waiting for several years on the European Commission to deliver its opinion on whether this move was legal. The case is frequently cited as an example of the bureaucratic difficulties of undertaking such defensive actions by EU member states. Estonia, on the other hand, holds a quite liberal attitude on this issue and does not seek to restrict such propaganda programs in any way (Delfi.lv, April 5, 2018).
Ivars Āboliņš, who chairs the Latvian NEPLP, agrees that the three Baltic States have taken divergent approaches to dealing with Russian disinformation broadcasts. Yet, this does not mean that the situation may not eventually reach a “critical mass.” He stressed, “However, we must seek a political solution and raise this issue at the EU level. In the case of the  poisoning of Sergei and Julia Skripal, the EU countries were able to unite their political positions, which shows that unity is also possible on other concerns as well” (Delfi.lv, April 5, 2018).
In 2018, the right-wing faction National Alliance (NA) called on fellow members of the Latvian parliament to agree to a joint plan for how to restrict Russian propaganda television channels in Latvia. Namely, NA suggested that at least the state-owned Internet service provider Lattelecom (Tet) should not carry Russian channels domestically (Lsm.lv, April 16, 2018).
So far, however, Latvian politicians have not been able to prevent Tet from pursuing its own business interests despite those national security concerns. While the chair of the Supervisory Board at Tet, Gatis Kokins, agrees that Russian propaganda is harmful to Latvia, two years ago he argued, “Purely from a commercial standpoint, of course, that would be an absolutely unacceptable decision [to remove Russian channels], and it is clear that the company as a commercial entity will never do that” (Delfi.lv, April 18, 2018). The situation has changed little since then.
Baltic politicians understand that in order to generate a more effective response to Russian disinformation and propaganda broadcasts, specific EU regulation will first need to be rewritten. And a united effort by all Central and Eastern European frontline states will be crucial to achieve that goal. In the meantime, it is up to each sovereign country to strengthen its own national policies toward private and state-owned TV companies where it can.