Hold a Mirror Up to Russia and the World in Ukraine: Avoid Censorship
There is a UK debate over the wisdom of allowing RT Russia to broadcast, given its breach of broadcasting rules enforcing impartiality. During Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, launched today, this debate needs to be broadened and more seriously considered in the UK and worldwide. Do you censor channels that promote disinformation or allow these channels to be aired and held accountable for their coverage? I would argue that we should enable accountability for words and actions by not censoring the media or online platforms.
On the one hand, it is valuable to know what is being said around the world if only to be better equipped to counter, resist, and hold the speakers to account (Strossen 2018). For example, it is of value to know that the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has been speaking to the Russian public and has been heard around the world falsely claiming that Ukraine has no tradition of statehood – that it is not a sovereign country but historically a part of Russia, that it has been committing genocide in the eastern region, that in 2022 it is the aggressor, and that it is ruled by neo-Nazi leaders – necessitating that the country must be ‘de-Nazified’. These ludicrous claims are being used to support of a truly evil invasion of a peaceful country.
Ukrainians have been invaded by Russians (and others) on multiple occasions. Occupation during the Soviet era is relatively recent history (Plokhy 2015). There is no evidence of genocide having been committed by Ukraine forces. Ukraine is surrounded and being invaded by over 150,000 Russian soldiers – orders of magnitude larger numbers than Ukrainian forces. Ukrainian forces might well prevail, given what is at stake, but Russia is the aggressor. And the President of Ukraine, who was elected by majorities across the nation in free and fair elections is Jewish, and obviously not a Nazi nor the leader of a neo-Nazi regime. These are clearly ignorant, shameful, evil, and misleading accusations being made by the President of Russia.
On the other hand, it is terrible to give the oxygen of a platform to such ludicrous and vicious claims. I can hardly write about them without feeling self-righteous or tainted by mere mention of such patently false accusations. How could anyone believe such claims given increasingly good and open media coverage of, and online access to, Ukraine over the years, particularly during and since the 2014 invasion of the Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its eastern regions? That said, better knowledge of Russian positions on developments in Ukraine has united Ukrainians, overcome differences of opinion across Europe, and greatly invigorated the commitment of NATO’s member states. It has also led to China showing its hand on where it stands vis-à-vis the Russian actions, aligning with global fears that China will see parallels with their own territorial claims. Moreover, knowing the rationale and actions of the US, UK, NATO, and others around financial sanctions has shown, just as in 2014, that these sanctions are far less effective, if effective at all, than what politicians anticipated.
Another altogether different position is the degree that censorship is simply ineffective in the digital age. People can route around censorship and still get their positions out. We can only hope that the Russian public can access European and American media coverage of what is occurring in Ukraine, such as through the BBC World Service, as well as bloggers in Russia and worldwide.
In sum, don’t censor. Instead, track claims and counterclaims of actors to hold a mirror up to them and our international system. Only then can we hold actors to account for their words and actions. Until 2022, too many gave some credibility to Putin. Considering his recent speeches and proclamations, whatever credibility he maintained has been lost, truly shattered. Many across the world only wonder if he is mad or evil.
More transparency is enhancing accountability in ways that are likely to realign the international system is ways that are quite dramatic and frightening but also realistic and in line with actual behavior rather than optimistic hopes (Menon and Rumer 2015). The world is not as civilized as many of us had hoped, but there is no value to hearing or seeing no evil if it exists. No one has a monopoly on virtue in this world, but one need not be self-righteous to point out seriously evil words and actions directed against Ukraine. That is all that many of us can do at this terrible time in the history of Ukraine.
Menon, Rajan, and Rumer, Eugene (2015), Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Plokhy, Serhii (2015), The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. New York: Basic Books.
Strossen, Nadine (2018), Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.