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2020.02.20 08:00

LRT FACTS. How did Estonia force Russia's Sputnik to close?

Jurga Bakaitė, LRT.lt2020.02.20 08:00

Estonia sanctioned Dmitry Kiselyov, the scandalous head behind Sputnik Estonia. As of January, the offices of the Russian propaganda outlet in the Baltic country have been empty.

LRT English is pairing up with colleagues from LRT.lt to bring you LRT FACTS – a fact-checking platform in cooperation with Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) that deconstructs suspicious information that gains traction among the Lithuanian public.

Read more: Sputnik closes Estonian bureau following sanctions

“I'm asking for your help. What can the Russian state do about Russian journalists fighting Western censorship? Tell us, please, what you make of the Estonian government's actions?” Yelena Chernysheva, a journalist from Sputnik Estonia, addressed President Vladimir Putin during his annual press conference.

“Unfortunately, nothing,” Putin said at first, before assuring that he'd see what could be done.

Last October, the company's bank accounts in Estonia were frozen and its employers received letters from the police telling them to terminate their employment contracts. On January 1, Sputnik Estonia announced it was working under “emergency” conditions. The Kremlin claimed this amounts to censorship and pressure against journalists. Meanwhile, Estonia's officials said they are merely enacting EU sanctions over Russia's annexation of Crimea. LRT FACTS looks at why and how Estonia took action against Spuntik.

Russian journalists supportive of the Kremlin have been putting on yellow vests and hashtagging “Sputnik power” on social media. The authors of the campaign said they want to highlight the alleged pressure Russian media experienced from the Estonian authorities.

Not only the reporters were seen wearing protest vests, however. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, started one of her press briefings with a speech denigrating Estonia.

“Pressuring the media in any form, when no laws or accreditation procedures have been violated, but based solely on political reasons, is unjustifiable,” she said, adding that Estonia was thus breaking European values.

President Putin, too, denigrated Estonia in his annual press conference, saying the country was “doing the same they’re accusing us of”.

Both Zakharova and other Russian officials also implied that the “attacks” were dictated by the UK government and had to do with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit in Estonia.

Read more: Bust spies, fine Facebook, foster elves: how to counter Russia’s actions – report

Estonia: sanctions are not against reporters

In response, Estonia’s officials quickly noted that the actions were not due to Sputnik’s reporting, but because of EU sanctions against Dmitry Kiselyov.

It was his “role in attacking Ukraine, involvement and profiting from the operations of Rossiya Segodnya” that were the basis for sanctions, Estonia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement in late December.

Kiselyov is on the list of individuals and organisations that contribute to harming Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence. EU member states have therefore committed to freezing their assets and banning them from entering the bloc.

Read more: Sputnik editor barred from entering Lithuania

The statement also noted that as a head of a news agency set up on Putin’s orders in 2013, Kiselyov was a “central figure in government propaganda supporting Russia’s forces in Ukraine”. Sputnik is a news channel aimed exclusively at foreign audiences and reports on local news in a dozen or so languages across the world.

The sanctions list includes more Russian and Ukrainian officials and members of separatist groups.

Estonian officials told LRT FACTS that over 30 individuals working with the Russian news agency received warnings.

Under the sanctions, listed individuals or the organisations they run are to be cut off from direct or indirect economic resources, Madis Reimand, the head of the Financial Intelligence Unit, told LRT.

He noted that the Bank of Estonia froze Sputnik’s assets back in 2015. Previously, Estonia invoked the EU’s sanctions against Alexei Chaly, the self-proclaimed mayor of Sevastopol in 2014, by freezing his bank accounts in the country.

Sanctions in the Baltics

Sanctions in Estonia caught the attention of Russia’s leadership, but it wasn’t the first time the Baltic authorities moved against Sputnik.

In 2015, Latvia’s centre of registers refused to register Rossiya Segodnya in the country, saying that the company’s activities are aimed at spreading information conductive to Russia’s foreign policy goals in Latvia.

In May, Lithuanian border guards refused entry to Marat Kasem, a Latvian citizen identified as editor-in-chief of Sputnik Lithuania. He is on a list of individuals banned from entering Lithuania.

Backing from international organisations

Sputnik, as well as Russian politicians, have appealed to international organisations, arguing that Estonia’s actions violate basic freedoms.

Read more: Russian army's TV journalist barred from entering Lithuania

Members of the Russian parliament have threatened to turn to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). One OSCE official has already censured Estonia.

“I encourage [Estonian] authorities to refrain from unnecessary limitations on the work of foreign media which can affect the free flow of information,” OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir tweeted in December.

Political Scientist Dovilė Jakniūnaitė, of Vilnius University, says that the OSCE is known as a pro-Russian organisation.

“It’s arguably the only European organisation where Russia has an active membership. There are no other formats where Russia could act, it has invested a lot [into its OSCE membership] and has a lot of influence,” according to her.

In October last year, Désir organised an OSCE conference on media freedom, the safety of journalists, disinformation and fake news in Moscow together with the Russian Foreign Ministry. Sergei Lavrov, the country's foreign minsiter, took part in a panel with journalists.

Read more: OSCE event on media freedom in Moscow to include Russian foreign minister

Statements from the OSCE will hardly have any negative effects for Estonia, she adds: “Estonia is fighting its own wars, as is Russia, it’s just that Estonia’s position holds [Sputnik] to be propaganda, not journalism.”

Sputnik’s functions may very well include intelligence functions for the Russian government, says political scientist Nerijus Maliukevičius from Vilnius University, and Estonia’s precedent might encourage other countries to take action, too.

“Estonia’s decision is very sensible,” he says. “It will make [Russia’s] propaganda and disinformation effort somewhat more difficult and at the same time sends a message to the West about possible policies regarding [Sputnik],” says Maliukevičius.

Strengthening Russian-language media

Can Tallinn be accused of undue pressure on Russian-language media? Political scientist Lukas Pukelis from the Vilnius-based Public Policy and Management Institute says that although Estonia produces considerable content in Russian, the country’s Russian-speakers prefer media channels from Russia.

“Estonia has made serious progress by launching ETV+, a national TV channel in Russian. [...] The problem is that it struggles to attract audiences,” he says. “Online media is doing better, where Estonian-produced content in Russian is relatively widespread.”

Estonia was ranked 11th in the 2019 Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. In comparison, Latvia was 24th, Lithuania was 30th and Russia, 149th.

What is Sputnik?

While Sputnik claims it has suffered from restrictions on free speech, its journalistic credentials have attracted considerable doubts.

In 2016, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling Sputnik “pseudo news agency” and one of the Russian government’s vehicles to spread propaganda and disinformation in the European Union.

Read more: Russian media launch coordinated smear campaign against former Lithuanian president

EUobserver has mentioned Sputnik’s stories among fake news coming from Russian sources. In one instance, Sputnik reported that NATO’s headquarters in Brussels contained Nazi symbolism.

As a candidate in 2017 France’s presidential election, Emmanuel Macron refused to give press accreditation to Sputnik’s representatives.

That same year, Twitter said it would not accept ads from the accounts of Sputnik and Rossiya Segodnya, linking the decision to interference during the US presidential election of 2016. Rossiya Segodnya was said to have spent almost 2 million US dollars on Twitter ads between 2011 and 2017.

Read more: Bots on the Ground: Half of Russian tweets on NATO in Baltics and Poland come from bot-networks

Manipulation / propaganda

Estonia’s move to freeze Sputnik’s accounts was not restricting free press, but was used to apply EU sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The agency was deemed at odds with journalistic ethics and faced restrictions in countries like France and the US. Contrary to Russia’s claims, the international community is unlikely to pressure Estonia to reconsider the decision.

Read more: LRT FACTS. Are Lithuanian cities 'deadliest' in Europe and is drinking to blame?