The first victim of war is the truth, it was said. Years ago, in Germany, I heard a wise old Polish professor say in a lecture: “Every case has its thousand sides … or at least its two.” My judicial experience, especially when wild accusations were exchanged in the urgent court during fierce parental disputes over children, confirmed the at least two sides truth.
For international news, I generally watch not only “mainstream Western media” – as Russia Today (RT) calls them – such as CNN, BBC and Euronews, but also RT, Chinese Global Television Network and Al Jazeera. This I did during the run-up to and early stages of the war in Ukraine. There is always another side, I am reminded by my sense of justice not only to the parties involved (who hardly need my justice), but to myself.
So, I took a breather from CNN’s recurring tirade against Vladimir Putin, as they did with Donald Trump, even though I welcomed every bit of evidence that proved the Don is a sociopathic narcissist. I watched RT. Then, suddenly, the screen simply said, “Feed abruptly stopped by vendor.” It shows a picture that explains how the supply of materials was blocked by the European Union.
The Economic Freedom Fighters and others complained. In an article in the Sunday Times on March 6, South African journalist Paula Slier, employed by RT, argued that whether one agrees with the channel or not, it should not be banned.
Our Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, including media freedom and the freedom to receive or transmit information and ideas. Even in apartheid South Africa, former Chief Justice Frans Rumpff, in a minority appellate court ruling on the ban on Wilbur Smith’s book When the Lion Feeds, describes freedom of expression as “an ordinary and precious asset, yet easily lost”. In the United States, it is called “the shining star” in their “constitutional constellation”.
Why is freedom of expression universally recognized as a fundamental right in international, regional and domestic human rights documents? I mention three reasons.
First, it is essential for the growth of knowledge and scientific progress. If no one could say that the earth is round, we might still have believed that it is flat. But, in the search for the truth, many untruths emerge, innocent as well as malicious. Powerful propaganda machines brainwash people and keep them ignorant. “We have no conscience“(We never knew) claimed thousands of Germans after World War II, as they saw several skeletons – dead and barely alive – emerge from concentration camps. To this day, Germany says: “Never again“(Never again).
Second, freedom of expression is essential for democracy. One cannot vote meaningfully for or against someone who is not allowed to criticize competitors or present a policy. But we also see how Trump’s constant lie – that he won an election he definitely lost – is believed by millions of Americans and undermines democracy. The free expression that Adolf Hitler enjoyed enabled him to become chancellor – and to abolish free expression.
Third – and most important – freedom of speech is essential for the expression of self, personal autonomy and existence in a world with others. Prolonged solitary confinement can wreak havoc on the human psyche. Without the freedom to communicate, the right to human dignity – sometimes claimed to be the mother of all rights – is violated. Of course, free expression must often be weighed against other rights, such as equality, security, privacy and dignity itself. It can therefore be limited by law. The restriction must be reasonable and justifiable in an open democratic society.
I watched RT to see what is happening in Russia, today and every day. Is the Russia of today the Russia of the great writers Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn? Russians appreciate the music of the famous Romantic composer Tchaikovsky, and enjoy his celebration of the thunderous noise of the battlefield in the 1812 Opening? But, alas, rather than providing news about Russia, noisy marginalized Americans mostly tell us on RT about the evils of the US and the rest of “the West”.
Whether the EU is blocking RT because of the perceived danger in what they are telling us and showing us about the war, or as part of a comprehensive sanctions package, I do not know. Slier points out that CNN and Fox News have also spread untruths about war, but are still on the air. She has a point. However, I would like to ask her if it is true that Russian state media are not allowed to use terms like “war” and “invasion” and are limited to the official line of “a special military operation”. If so, does her professional integrity allow her to stay?
RT showed Putin’s repeated statements and echoed that no invasion was intended in Ukraine, even during the massive military build-up over months. It was only the West that insisted that Putin have sinister plans to justify sanctions, the channel said – even though many of the sanctions would hurt those very Western countries badly.
We also heard that no civilians were targeted in Ukraine. The hospitals, schools and theaters left in ruins and the bodies in the rubble must have been bombed by Ukrainians themselves.
RT conveyed Putin’s various explanations about the reasons for his military operation: the Ukrainian army commits genocide against the people of the Donbas region. They want to belong to Russia. Thus, Putin recognized Donetsk and Luhansk as “independent people’s republics”! In fact, the whole of Ukraine should not be an independent country. The Nazi-Ukrainian government, under a Jewish president, has to face criminal trials. They brainwashed Ukrainians who are actually Russians – and are now being bombed to pieces. In violation of international law, NATO has threatened war by encircling Russia with Eastern European members or aspiring member states. These and more – often contradictory – arguments presented by RT.
For more than four decades after World War II, the West was preoccupied with the threat of communism. In his famous novel, The joke, Milan Kundera, stated that the Russian domination of Czechoslovakia was less about the spread of communism (a perhaps well-intentioned ideological goal), than about the expansion of the Russian Empire. This could possibly be Putin’s project.
I agree with the EFF and Paula Slier that we should have access to RT. It improved my insight into the war. Some of the reasons for Russian dissatisfaction one can try to understand. But do they justify a brutal war, at this time?
As free expression is essential to human dignity, blatantly untrue propaganda offends dignity. It may fail to achieve its goal. Perhaps more than CNN and BBC, RT has convinced me – at least for now – that Putin is a lying power-hungry thug, backed by corrupt cohorts and ignorant masses.