January 10, 2020

Was Sputnik Eesti a trap?

TASS/Scanpix
Russia's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova gives a briefing on Russia's foreign policy. Zakharova wears a vest in support of Sputnik Estonia journalists being pressured by the Estonian authorities.
Russia's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova gives a briefing on Russia's foreign policy. Zakharova wears a vest in support of Sputnik Estonia journalists being pressured by the Estonian authorities.

Sputnik Eesti has ceased activity in Estonia after Estonian law-enforcement threatened to prosecute its staff members under EU sanctions against Russia.

As expected, the shutdown of Sputnik has generated a little spat between Estonia and Russia as the latter has accused Estonia of oppressing the press and violating the freedom of speech.

There are some fundamental questions about the closure of Sputnik. The Kremlin-backed propaganda channel can hardly be considered journalism, since it only expresses views compatible with the talking points coming out of the Kremlin. No dissenting view can be seen on Sputnik.

In addition, the Estonian daily Postimees revealed last year that Sputnik ran eight Facebook accounts aimed squarely at Estonia. Another five dealt with the Baltics in general. The holders of these accounts used false identities and they were managed by Sputnik employees.

Postimees writes: “… their goal was to disseminate and amplify the content of the Russian propaganda network. To mask their activities, users also shared content from Estonian sites, like Postimees, Delfi and ERR.”

All this doesn’t qualify as journalism. Nevertheless, the even more important question is why Russia decided to operate and maintain Sputnik Eesti in the first place. Its Estonian version was of very low quality. Most of the articles were translations and anonymous. It was impossible to know who actually worked for Sputnik Eesti, and only thanks to the latest scandal did the Estonian public learn the name of its editor-in-chief.

In terms of quality, Sputnik Eesti did not even come close to another Russian propaganda outlet, RT, which quite often had good news coverage and hosted talk shows. Most important, it was possible to know the names of the journalists working for RT.

Thus it is hardly believable that Sputnik Eesti enjoyed any popularity among Estonians. But it was still run by Russia, even though Sputnik’s Finnish version was closed down in Finland. But somehow Sputnik’s puppet-masters decided that Sputnik Eesti would attract the Estonian public.

The peculiarity of Estonia and the other Baltic states regarding Russia’s propaganda and information war compared to the rest of Europe is that people here can watch Russian TV in the Russian language direct, so no special channels like RT are needed here. Many Estonians watch Russian TV and are influenced by it. No Russian info-ops are necessary.

This all begs the question whether running Sputnik Eesti was a trap. Sooner or later its activities would have violated Estonian laws and a clash between Estonia and Russia would have been inevitable.

Of course, another fundamental question is what countermeasures Russia will take. It would be sad if Russia restricted the activities of Estonian correspondents in Russia. The Estonian public doesn’t get much first-hand information about Russia and the potential end of the Estonian correspondents’ work there would mean that Estonians would be left only with other information sources, which do not cover Russia from the Estonian perspective.

 

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