OTTAWA — The Canadian government is targeting the Russian state-controlled television channel RT as experts warn that foreign propaganda outlets imperil national security and undermine democracy.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday that he has asked the Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC) to trigger a process that would review RT’s ability to broadcast in Canada.
“We recognize the CRTC is an independent body, and this process is important because the independence of journalists, of media, in this country is something that we have to take great care in,” Trudeau said.
“In Russia, President Putin continues to block the independent media and uses the state-controlled media to spread falsehoods and propaganda about this unwarranted war,” he said in French. “Such misinformation will not be allowed to spread in Canada.”
The prime minister’s announcement came a day after Canada’s major TV providers pulled RT from their lineups.
Rogers, Bell, Shaw and Telus no longer carry the network, with Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez stating Sunday that Rogers planned to replace the Kremlin-funded channel with a broadcast of the Ukrainian flag.
RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is a 24-hour news channel that was launched in 2005 and is widely considered to be a propaganda outlet for the Russian government.
“The fact that these large companies are recognizing the threat that RT poses to our democracy and our understanding of world affairs is really commendable,” said Marcus Kolga, a disinformation expert with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa.
Allowing Russian propaganda to flow freely into Canadian homes is not a free-speech issue but one of national security, Kolga said, charging that RT has actively promoted vaccination hesitancy and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic in an attempt to divide Canadians.
Kolga said RT has been promoting anti-government conspiracies, including giving voice to those who want to overthrow the government. He noted that the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protesters in Ottawa highlighted the kinds of narratives shared on the network.
Kolga said governments should sanction organizations like RT and their staff, so Canadians can’t get paid for working for them. Such action, he said, would block “the ability for the crooked individual, maybe an academic, to receive payment for writing columns that attack democracy, NATO, Canada using those platforms like RT.”
Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said disinformation is often intended to foster chaos and confusion, rather than to achieve a political objective.
The end goal is to bring about a “paralysis through fatigue,” so people aren’t sure what is happening.
“That’s what you see around vaccines and COVID,” Deibert said. “There’s so many organized, industrial-scale disinformation campaigns that were basically doing that.”
It’s “extremely dangerous” that RT is misinforming Canadians, said Liberal Ontario MP Yvan Baker, who brought forward a motion in the House of Commons Monday that sought, in part, to direct the CRTC to remove the state-sponsored broadcaster.
He hoped the motion, which was unanimously adopted, sent a “very strong signal” to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“My hope is that we see the actions that are called for in this motion,” Baker told the Star.
“I think it’s critical we do that not just for the sake of the Ukrainians … not just for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, but also for global security and our own security.”
Russia has been using social media to sow disinformation and misinformation since its invasion of Georgia in 2008.
But Russia isn’t alone among nations in its attempts to spread false information.
Human rights activists have been trying to get the CRTC to stop the state-run China Global Television Network and China Central Television-4 from being available in Canada over their airing of dozens of forced confessions.
On Monday, Trudeau said that while the Russia-Ukraine conflict created an opportunity for “reflection” on foreign propaganda outlets, Ottawa’s focus for the time being is on scrubbing RT from Canadian lineups.
But as the country looks to stem at least some of the flow of disinformation, Kolga cautioned that RT is still available on YouTube, which he said is the primary platform for the network.
“You have YouTube essentially working in partnership with state media to generate revenue,” he said. “That’s deeply, deeply disturbing.”
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