This article is an augmented translation of an article
published on February 16, 2023 in La Revue des medias (INA).
"All [bank] accounts of RT France have been blocked in France. Here it is, Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité," Margarita Simonian mocked on her Telegram account on January 20, 2023. The head of RT was referring to the effects of sanctions
adopted by the EU in December 2022 that targeted, among others, TV-Novosti, the parent company of the main Russian international news network. After the resulting freezing of its funds by the French Treasury, the decentralized editorial office of RT in France announced
the forthcoming cessation of its activities.
This reflects the ongoing major reconfiguration of Russia’s media influence since February 24, 2022. The provocative prophecy made
in 2015 by the Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, for whom “the Third World War could happen if the Pentagon bombs Russia Today,” has certainly not come true; but the conflict generated by Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine has nonetheless been transposed, beyond the battlefield, into the global information space. One year after the invasion, what are the repercussions of this “information warfare” on Russia’s mediated public diplomacy and international propaganda?Russian transnational media ousted in the West
The desire to undermine Russia’s information capabilities after the invasion of Ukraine has quickly emerged as a priority for the sanctions enacted by Western countries, with a focus on Russia’s international state media RT and Sputnik. On March 2, 2022, the EU Council adopted a regulation
aimed at combating “propaganda actions” implemented by the Russian state to “justify and support its aggression against Ukraine.” Without banning their content production, this decision led to the temporary suspension of all RT and Sputnik broadcasting channels within the EU and to their deplatformization
, resulting in a drastic drop in their activities
on social networks and in their audiences in Europe. The French-language original website of Sputnik, fr.sputniknews.com, thus went from over 12 million total monthly visits to 350,000 between January 2022 and January 2023, according to data collected on SimilarWeb.
The reactions of RT and Sputnik to their suspension varied depending on their particular branches. In France, Sputnik put its Paris office into liquidation
in May 2022. RT had, until then, maintained its French-language editorial team in Boulogne-Billancourt, near Paris, despite the departure of more than a third of its staff (including some of its most visible figures
) and subcontractors, as well as the cessation of its newscasts and most of its programs. RT France had also filed an application with the EU Court for the annulment of the March 2 regulation, in vain
In Germany, where the RT DE television channel had already been banned
at the beginning of February 2022 following a legal-technical imbroglio and a failed maneuver
, the double, Berlin-based office of RT – with RT DE and the agency Ruptly – faced mass departures
after February 24. And since the closure of
its company “RT DE Productions GmbH” at the beginning of February 2023, the management of RT’s German-language website has been completely relocated to Russia.
The announced closure of RT France in France, whose liquidation is increasingly likely
, is all the more significant as it would signal the end of the decentralization of the RT network in Western countries. This decentralization had begun with the launch of RT America in January 2010, as part of the Russo-American “reset” of the Obama-Medvedev era, and had continued with the activities of RT UK until its license was definitively revoked
by Ofcom, the British regulator, in March 2022. These moves followed the cessation of activities by RT America, which was abandoned by its distribution platforms a few days before
. The production of programs and content for RT is now mainly supervised from its Moscow headquarters. While the EU sanctions have undoubtedly affected the broadcasting capacities of RT and Sputnik, the situation also portends the emergence of an even more uninhibited and propagandistic editorial line, freed from its European regulatory entities. New information walls and cat-and-mouse game
In Russia, the war has been accompanied by an increase in state control over information unseen since the pre-perestroika Soviet Union, as well as a reduction of information flows between Russia and Western countries. The Russian nongovernmental media realm has been thoroughly purged
through repressive legislation, notably the censorship law
approved by the Duma on March 4, 2022. Anticipating difficulties, several Western television channels (CNN, ARD, RAI, etc.) chose to suspend
their activities in Russia, while other Western networks with Russian-language services, such as the BBC, VoA, RFE/RL, Euronews and RFI have been blocked
in Russia by the regulator Roskomnadzor for broadcasting “disinformation” about the conflict. The process of “sovereignization
” of the Russian internet initiated in late 2018 has also accelerated: the Russian authorities have restricted access to several major American platforms (Twitter, Facebook
, Instagram, though YouTube and WhatsApp remain accessible), while Meta Platforms was added in October 2022 to the list of “terrorist and extremist organizations” by Rosfinmonitoring
, the federal financial monitoring service.
Although difficult to estimate
, millions of Russian Internet users are trying to bypass these new “information walls” to access banned Western platforms (especially Instagram) or Russian independent news websites that, facing blocking, pressure, and intimidation by the government, were forced to leave Russia. Between March and July 2022, Russia has become the country with the second-largest
number of VPN downloads behind India, whereas it was only sixteenth just before the invasion. For their part, international media suspended or blocked in the EU, such as Sputnik, or in Russia, such as the Russian service of the BBC, have encouraged their audiences to download VPNs.