Is a news and information war a legitimate way to redress an imbalance in visions of the world? According to his sidekicks, Vladimir Putin is trying to create a counterweight to the "Russophobia" fomented by the western mass media.
Speaking with all the subtlety of a guard dog a few days before the referendum, Moscow-backed Crimean "Prime Minister" Sergey Aksyonov shamelessly said: "We don't want [the media] coming here turning everything head over heels." Note that the targets of this hostility include independent Russian media, which are seen as a sort of fifth column.
According to Putin's spokesmen, journalists who don't toe the official Russian line are trapped in a one-sided vision of the world if not fully subservient to the US empire. They argue that the Kremlin's violations of freedom of information are justified by the need to correct this "bias" and to promote a vision inspired by the Russian people's deepest feelings, which naturally coincide with the oligarchy's interests, a vision portrayed so well by puppet media such as Russia Today.
No one is disputing the existence of "bias" in Europe or the United States, in the sense of subconscious cultural influences and distorting prisms that are reflected in news coverage, despite rules about objectivity and journalistic ethics. Journalists too often tend to reflect the diplomatic interests of the countries of which they are citizens, even if this is simply the product of "cultural immersion." It would be absurd to deny that the way Washington-based journalists feel about NATO's expansion towards Russia's borders is different from the way their colleagues in Moscow feel about it, regardless of the requirements of objectivity.
But in this case, it is not about different views of the world and Russia "catching up." The Kremlin has put a propaganda lid, a very firm propaganda lid, on the Crimea. On March 1, around 30 armed members of the pro-Russian "Crimea Front" militia stormed into the Simferopol-based press center, which houses the Centre for Journalistic Investigations, and said: "False reports are coming out of this building." Blocking journalists from leaving, this menacing rabble proposed "an agreement on the correct coverage of events."
Reporters Without Borders has reported many similar cases of intimidation. There have been countless deliberate attacks and threats against journalists. The cases of journalists being arrested or even abducted are particularly disturbing.
The signals of all the Ukrainian and local TV stations have been disconnected in Crimea since March 9 and replaced by Russian stations (while some Ukrainian TV service operators in turn suspended the main Russian channels). At the same time, Russian TV stations have been guilty of deliberate distortion and propaganda lies. Is it appropriate in these circumstances to invoke the well-known and noble principle of "self-determination of peoples"? Clearly not. And anyway, it is laughable when an occupation is going on.
You cannot snuff out the right to news and information in the same way that you seal Chernobyl's radioactivity under layers of concrete. In a speech to parliament during the French Second Republic, Victor Hugo said: "The principle of press freedom is no less essential, no less sacred" than the principle of universal suffrage. "If you violate one, you violate the other."
These violations are not limited to the Crimean peninsula. In Moscow, a representative of A Just Russia (a small party in the Duma) submitted a bill on March 14 that aims to jail media executives and editors who spread "mendacious anti-Russian information." Russia is a country where journalists are in prison for covering the taboo subject of corruption, murders of journalists usually go unpunished, and more draconian laws are being passed all the time. And now the government is trying to annex the last spaces left for freedom and resistance.
Behind the Potemkin stage settings of the Sochi Winter Olympics, the independent TV station Dozhd has disappeared from Russian screens because it has been dropped by cable and satellite TV providers. Dozhd is being investigated by the St. Petersburg prosecutor's office and is the target of a score of suits for financial compensation.
Galina Timchenko, the editor of Russia's leading independent news website, Lenta.ru, was fired on March 12, shortly after the site received a warning from the communications regulatory agency Roskomnadzor because one of its journalists interviewed a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist leader, although the journalist showed no sympathy for his interviewee.
But in Russia it is getting harder and harder to interview anyone who is not in the Kremlin's good books. The three main opposition news sites, Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru and EJ.ru, have been inaccessible in Russia since March 13. Regardless of the importance of Russian gas and oligarchic fortunes, Washington, Berlin, London, Paris and Brussels should urgently realize that the new conduct now prevailing in Moscow is not a matter of local folklore but an extremely grave development.
Follow Christophe Deloire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cdeloire