Can Freedom of speech be absolute where words are used to kill?

Coynash Halya
Coynash Halya
Teacher, interpreter, publicist

PEN International, together with its Writers in Prison Committee and ICORN Network held a three-day conference in Lillehammer, Norway from May 31, entitled "an exploration and celebration of the resilience of art and literature in the face of a ‘post truth’ world". For those of us resisting the very idea that we are living in a post-truth age, the meeting gave rich scope for discussion and the sharing of very diverse views.

The event took place only a few months before Lviv is to host the next PEN International conference, and perhaps for that reason PEN Ukraine was invited to take part in a panel entitled The PEN Debate: Free Expression in a Post Truth World. The subject was one of very immediate relevance to Ukraine which has been under sustained attack, including on the information front, since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in early 2014. The questions were: What happens when falsehood and distortion are expressed in the name of free speech? Should there be restraints? How can lies be countered in the post-truth world? And is it possible to define ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’ in a world where alternative fact are as accessible as official histories?

There were fairly strong points of disagreement, with PEN members from countries like Norway clearly seeing any restrictions as a dangerous precedent. William Nygaard, head of Norwegian PEN was on the panel, defending a fairly absolute rejection of any restrictions.

The following thoughts were penned before the debate, but broadly outline the grounds presented as a counter-argument.


There is no post-truth world, there are however plenty of methods in which lies and distortion of information are used as weapons.

Ukraine is a country at war, and a war not of its own making. It is facing constant attack from Russia which is spending vast amounts of money on propaganda and various methods of manipulating public opinion – in Ukraine and abroad, as well as in Russia.

Before considering attempts made by the Ukrainian authorities to fight such propaganda and whether they constitute censorship, a few words about the methods used.

Consider Russia Today or RT, the TV channel which is widely provided in hotels as a kind of Russian version of the BBC or Deutsche Welle. It is seen as necessary to provide "the Russian point of view?. What happens, however, when that Kremlin-funded TV channel is used to deliberately mislead viewers?

One example is found in the coverage of events on May 2, 2014, in Odesa, in southern Ukraine. On that day, 48 people lost their lives during disturbances and a terrible fire.

Within hours Russia had begun presenting the fire as a massacre by Ukrainian nationalists.

There was no massacre and this has been confirmed by international investigators, for example, from the Council of Europe.

It is quite clear that Russia Today and all Russian media are aware of these findings since they quote the reports wherever these criticize Ukraine’s authorities.

They continue to claim that the fire was a massacre and that ‘Ukrainian radicals’ forced people into the building, set it alight and beat to death anyone who escaped.

Material can be found here: Putin and Russia Today continue incitement to kill through lies about non-existent Odesa ‘massacre’

The video footage is always heavily edited to avoid scenes where pro-Russian activists were shooting at the pro-Ukrainian activists and hurling Molotov cocktails at them, or where Ukrainian activists dragged scaffolding over to rescue people trapped in the building.

Huge amounts of money are spent on this murderous campaign which is known to have conned many young men to go and fight, and often die, in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, citing an invented massacre in Odesa as the last straw.

If you were told that a group of Norwegians, Jews, or any other group had been herded into a building which was then set alight, how would you react?

This was exactly how anti-Semitic pogroms began. The Odesa manipulation is one of countless examples of deliberate lies, spread by government-funded Russian media.

Would you check the information about a city you had probably never even heard of? This, after all, is one of the arguments often used by those who condemn any restrictions on the activities of media like Russia Today or journalists showing fake footage and even fake victims of invented Ukrainian atrocities.

If you have reason to suspect that the news is biased, maybe you will check. In general, almost certainly not.

Worth noting that Russia takes no chances at home and immediately destroyed any media pluralism in occupied Crimea and the areas of Donbas under the control of Kremlin-backed militants.

Ukraine expelled the first employees of Russian state-controlled channels back in the summer of 2014. Although the OSCE Media representative Dunja Mijatović eventually acknowledged that open lying, distortion and production of fakes could not be called journalism, it remains standard for the OSCE and international media organizations to protest at Ukraine’s supposed encroachment on press freedom.

In July 2014, Russia Today quickly broadcast and then removed an hour-long film with graphic, but fake or manipulated video footage, in which it claimed that ’the junta’ in Kyiv and its ’Nazi mercenaries’ were carrying out genocide, ethnic cleansing and starving its population, while children were being taught Nazi slogans and salutes.

Information and a link can be found here: Russia Today’s "Genocide in Eastern Ukraine": Sick, distorted and deleted

The film was swiftly removed to avoid complaints and likely penalties in western countries. It can still be found on the Internet, and had, in any case, achieved its aim, reaching a huge audience, most of whom would have had no idea that they were being deliberately misled.

There were hours of such films on Russian TV,, with these unfortunately seen also in occupied Crimea and eastern Ukraine. There was and remains no channel to turn to for an alternative version of reality.

Availability of alternative points of view is important, but is not a sufficient safeguard against total media misinformation. You need to know that information could be suspect before you seek verification. You also need to have the will to find out. Events of the past year in Britain and the USA particularly, have demonstrated that we ignore at our peril people’s will to brush aside what they don’t want to hear and the ease with which social networks can be flooded by manipulative fakes.

Ukraine found itself under attack from a neighbouring country which a high percentage of Ukrainians had always viewed positively. Russian television channels were widely available, and Ukrainian publishing companies could not compete with their Russian competitors who largely controlled the market.

This led to a situation where a country which had annexed Ukrainian territory, and unleashed a war in Donbas that was killing thousands, was also freely broadcasting its warmongering propaganda on Ukrainian frequencies, and importing books openly calling for the dissolution of Ukraine as a country.

Each attempt to combat this has led to cries of censorship. The efforts are often clumsy and ineffectual, but censorship they are not.

The measures include the ban finally imposed in December 2016 on import of certain books considered to contain propaganda of an aggressor state, to justify or declare as legitimate occupation of Ukrainian territory".

There is no ban on individuals bringing copies of the books in (up to 10 per person), nor on them accessing them on the Internet (details here Ukraine bans import of ’anti-Ukrainian’ books from Russia)

A month later, in January 2017, there was outrage from international organizations because Ukraine’s authorities banned the independent Russian TV Dozhd.

It was banned after ignoring numerous warnings over infringements, for example, on advertising restrictions. There was one other more important infringement. In order to avoid being banned or prosecuted in Russia, Dozhd called Crimea Russian and constantly showed maps on which Crimea was presented as though part of Russia.

Those who shouted that this was censorship had either not tried to find out the reasons for the ban or had never considered how they would feel if a part of their country was annexed, with its inhabitants either forced to flee or facing serious human rights violations. (details here: International NGOs should get the facts right re Ukraine’s ‘Ban’ on Russian TV Dozhd)

The recent announcement of sanctions and a ban on certain Russian social media has also elicited a lot of criticism, with some probably justified.

There had been no public discussion, although it was a move that could influence millions of Ukrainians.

Public discussion was particularly called for since there really are compelling reasons for Ukrainians to not use VKontakte and Odnoklassniki as social media. It is no accident that the many prosecutions for posts or reposts either in Russian-occupied Crimea or Russia have been over material on those social networks who are known to closely collaborate with Russia’s security service, the FSB.

It is asserted that posts on such media could be used to geolocate Ukrainian soldiers and put their lives in danger.

A proper education campaign – and downright ban on soldiers using any media that could place their lives in danger – would seem much better than a blanket ban which has already led to a huge increase in the number of people using servers to avoid the block.

There is no ban on Facebook or other such media, and unlike Russia, you can post virtually any criticism of people in power, organize protest events, etc. without facing criminal charges and imprisonment for so-called ‘extremism’. Facebook itself restricts hate speech and is trying to bring in mechanisms against deliberate fake news.

There are other problems with the measures in Ukraine introduced on May 15. They include the questionable legality of sanctions against Ukrainian citizens, and the fact that Ukraine is banning social media that have repeatedly provided evidence of Russian soldiers being deployed in Donbas (which Moscow denies) and of war crimes committed there (details here).

Arguing that investigators will still be able to access such material ignores the fact that such evidence has often been found by chance, or thanks to individual users following up leads. The social media also alert Ukrainians to the regular attempts to either manufacture or, when that fails, simply invent separatist movements in Ukraine, claims of discrimination of minorities. Worth noting that such supposed stories often get traction through sloppy copy-paste reposting on more mainstream Ukrainian media. Yet again, education seems more effective than banning some, only to find the same nonsense thoughtlessly circulated by other media.

Although the media that Ukraine has imposed sanctions on and / or is seeking to ban are deliberately spreading toxic lies, a ban is not necessarily the best solution. While there is no possibility of changing the torrents of misinformation on Russian state-controlled media, you can at least hope to point to the lies and provide truthful information on social media. You can also alert people to particularly pernicious forms of misinformation. This has been rampant about political prisoners like Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko. It is also on the increase with respect to mounting repression against Crimean Tatars in occupied Crimea, with this increasingly – and falsely – pushed as being against ‘terrorists" (Russian TV uses Crimean Tatar political prisoner to claim Ukraine is "funding terrorism")

The lies are used to justify imprisoning innocent men for decades. And, in other cases, they are used to justify murder and war. Justifying that in the name of freedom of speech is also a very dangerous precedent.

Coynash Halya
Author - Coynash Halya
July 12, 2017
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