Propaganda, censorship and the limits of authority

Propaganda, censorship and the limits of authority

In a liberal country, the state does not even censor the banners suspended by soccer fans. For example, we don’t know what one batch of PAOK hooligans meant with their recent banner reading “Hang in there brothers,” but we can certainly guess. Yes, the banner unfurled in the PAOK stadium should have been taken down. But not by the police or a judicial official – who have no such authority. It should have been taken down by the stadium’s owner, which is PAOK itself.

By the same token, the European Union has no business censoring Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda in Europe. The plug should not be pulled on the online versions of Russia Today and Sputnik, even though, to paraphrase, the first casualty of this war has been lies. If anything, it would have given us a laugh to read Putin’s continued claims of feeling threatened by the Ukrainians.

We mention the online versions specifically because radio waves are something quite different. The electromagnetic spectrum is a very valuable resource, with specific and limited broadcasting frequencies and wavelengths. It is also a public commodity. And just as a state has a duty to ban the use of its airspace by the aggressor’s bombers, so it is well within its rights to forbid the use of any of its public resources for anything its democratic society considers detrimental. Banning certain broadcasts is not censorship, in the sense that it is not forbidding the propagation of a specific message. It is simply ensuring that the state is not enabling the dissemination of, say, fake news.

A liberal state does not forbid a message, even one the majority may regard as harmful, but it does not help propagate it either

In other words, a liberal state does not forbid a message, even one the majority may regard as harmful, but it does not help propagate it either. It is this fundamental principle that gives the National Broadcasting Council its legitimacy. It is an independent authority whose task it is to manage our public property by setting certain rules and limitations.

But the council has absolutely no authority over the internet or print media, whose producers use private resources to get their message across. The responsibility of dealing with the kind of propaganda and fake news that has been spread for years by the Putin regime lies with civil society.

In this sense, the European Union may decide that there is no room on the public radio waves of its member-states for the kind of Putin nonsense and poison disseminated by Russia Today and Sputnik, just as it may decide to ban Nazi propaganda. The Commission, however, has absolutely no authority over online networks and cable channels – none whatsoever.

Freedom of information is a fundamental European value, and it must not be undermined, not even in times of war.

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