Russia’s genocidal propaganda must not be passed off as freedom of speech

As cases of war crimes pile up against Russia, can peddlers of hate be held to account?

[Dominic McKenzie/The Observer]

I was in gorgeous, courageous Kyiv on Monday when the latest Russian missile shower hit Ukraine, murdering civilians and knocking out heat and light on the cusp of winter. Kyivans took it calmly. My meeting smoothly transferred from a cafe to the metro, where we chain-drank coffee and carried on under the sirens and occasional, reverberating booms of missile defence. On social media and Russian TV, the grotesque propaganda cast of state-controlled media, officials and tub-thumping pundits were their usual sadistic selves, celebrating the strikes and calling for more attacks on civilians and critical infrastructure.


For years, and especially since the invasion of 24 February, Russian state media has been calling to wipe Ukraine off the map, for killing Ukrainians en masse, and dehumanising its people, smearing them as “Nazis” who need to be denazified."


Examples are plentiful. In Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency, the pro-Kremlin journalist Timofey Sergeytsev called for the destruction of Ukraine’s national identity and a campaign of brutal punishment of its people. He called for imprisonment, forced labour and death for those who refused to comply with the Kremlin’s rule in Ukraine. In the programme of the well-known propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, one of the guests stated the following: “Ukraine cannot be repaired. You cannot repair this construct. It has to be destroyed as it is anti-Russia, an entity that threatens Russia.”


As the cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and genocide pile up against the Russian leadership and military, is there a way to hold members of the propaganda machine accountable as well? Are they protected by freedom of speech or is their role qualitatively different: not mere trumpeters of abhorrent opinion but facilitators of crimes? And what does it mean for other cases across the world: from Donald Trump using Twitter to (allegedly) egg on the rioters at the US Capitol on 6 January, to the Myanmar online peddlers of hate encouraging persecution of the Rohingya?


The question of the legal culpability of propagandists was one of the reasons for my visit: I had chaired a panel on the topic at the Lviv Book Forum. We’d discussed historical examples of propagandists found guilty in the dock. The author and lawyer Philippe Sands pointed out that at Nuremberg,