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Wednesday, July 27, 2022

What the War in Ukraine Can Teach Us about the Dangers of Censorship

Vladimir Putin's stated justification for censorship should serve as a warning to Americans.

[Editor’s note: This is a version of an article published in the Out of Frame Newsletter, an email newsletter about the intersection of art, culture, and ideas. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.]

Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has imposed harsh censorship on its citizens to restrict negative discussions of the war.

Several independent news outlets in Russia have shut down, or have censored coverage of the war. Government censorship affected foreign reporters too: In March, Russia blocked access to the BBC, the Voice of America, and other Western outlets. The BBC halted operations in Russia to avoid arrest.

Last month, a court in Kaliningrad ruled that news outlets were guilty of a criminal offense for publishing a list of Russian military casualties because it was “classified information.”

According to The New York Times, Russia’s war censorship laws passed in March “could make it a crime to simply call the war a ‘war’ — the Kremlin says it is a ‘special military operation’ — on social media or in a news article or broadcast.”

Besides banning criticism of the war, the legislation also makes “calling on other countries to impose sanctions on Russia or protesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine punishable by fines and years of imprisonment.”

The Russian government arrested thousands in mass demonstrations when the war began, and Russians continue to be detained for protesting the conflict.

Earlier this month, a local politician in Moscow, Alexei Gorinov, was sentenced to seven years in prison for speaking against the war in a city council meeting. The BBC reported:

Judge Olesya Mendeleyeva ruled he had carried out his crime “based on political hatred” and had misled Russians, prompting them to “feel anxiety and fear” about the military campaign.​​​​​

Attacks on the press and dissidents in Russia are not new. But the country had a “mostly uncensored” Internet according to the New York Times—that was, until Moscow blocked Facebook and Instagram.

These abuses of power should show us the dangers of giving the government the authority to restrict freedom of speech. But the Kremlin’s stated justification for the censorship should also serve as a more specific warning.

The main laws under which Russia’s censorship is taking place, Law 31-FZ and 32-FZ, prohibit “public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” and “discrediting” the use of the Russian military.

That is the official language in the law. And although no liberal democracies currently engage in campaigns of naked state censorship like Russia’s, the idea of banning “knowingly false information” is familiar to citizens of the West.

But what the situation in Russia should teach us is that the definition of “false” always lies with the censors. It may sound good to want to ban misinformation, or any other kind of “bad” speech, but deciding what fits these ambiguous categories will give the censors great opportunity for abuse.

In the words of economist Milton Friedman: “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”

Why no one should be a censor.@TK_Coleman sums it up with @TheMinimalists:

— FEE (Foundation for Economic Education) (@feeonline) June 6, 2022

  • Matt Hampton is the Commentary Content Associate for the Foundation for Economic Education.