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Should Ukraine Get A Pass Because Russia Censors Too?

Women have their lunch as they watch Russian President Vladimir Putin on the television addressing the country's Federal Assembly on the Crimean referendum to reunify with Russia outside the peninsula's capital Simferopol.
The Russian government is outraged about censorship -- in Ukraine.

On March 25, a Kyiv district court ordered the temporary suspension of broadcasts by four major Russian television channels. Reports from Ukraine say most major providers had responded to the court order by midnight on March 27 and the Russian broadcasts, including First Channel, RTR Planeta, Rossiya 24, and NTV Mir, are widely unavailable.

Ukraine's Council of National Security and Defense has said the broadcasts "threaten the national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

Volya, a major cable operator that broadcasts throughout Ukraine, announced that it would replace the banned broadcasters with three Ukrainian ones and Dozhd TV, an independent Moscow-based outlet that itself has come under threat of closure in Russia in what is widely seen as part of a broader political crackdown.

Reaction from Russian officials has been swift.

"Such a decision does not meet Ukrainian obligations in the area of human rights, in particular media freedom, in the least," said Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry's envoy for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. "And certainly, such a decision has nothing to do with the declarations of the de facto authorities in Kyiv about their intentions to respect human rights, basic freedoms, and to strengthen democracy."

Aleksei Volin, Russia's deputy minister for mass communications, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the shutdown is both a legal and moral violation.

"First, we are dealing with completely blatant censorship, when they're not even hiding the fact that Russian TV channels are being shut off because someone doesn't like their content," he said. "Second, the main victims of this will be the Ukrainian viewers, because these Russian channels were popular enough among the audience in Ukraine that what was shown always brought large interest."

But the news has also been greeted with a heavy dose of "whataboutism." Russia, after all, appears to be accelerating its own crackdown on independent media.

In March, authorities blocked several Russian opposition websites; the chief editor of the popular independent website was fired and replaced by a Kremlin-connected editor; and Dozhd has been given an eviction notice.

In Crimea, authorities blocked major Ukrainian television channels.

And, as we've covered here, Russian media have relentlessly portrayed a Ukrainian landscape that does not mesh with reality.

Comparisons to Russia notwithstanding, the fact is that four channels that are popular among Russian-speakers have been closed off to the audiences that choose to watch them.

Earlier this month, Dunja Mijatovic, the media freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- which includes both Russia and Ukraine among its 57 member nations -- rejected political arguments for shutting down Russian broadcasters.

"While I deplore any kind of state propaganda and hate speech as part of the current information war, everyone has the right to receive information from as many sources as he or she wishes,” she said. "Switching off and banning channels is not the way to address these problems; any potentially problematic speech should be countered with arguments and more speech."

-- Glenn Kates

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