A modern newsroom in a big media outlet is a large space with open workplaces for journalists and editors. Everything is out there in the open.
But imagine a light and transparent office where you suddenly come across an isolated dark space that just doesn’t fit into the logic of newsroom planning and no one can tell what it is actually intended for.
The membership of TASS, Russia’s state-run news agency, became precisely such a dark space in the bright “office” of the European Alliance of News Agencies (EANA). TASS membership was suspended in February 2022, but its final expulsion from the Alliance has not yet become a reality...
After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the then President of EANA, chief of Austria’s news agency APA, Clemens Pig, began writing the book "Democracy Dies in Darkness." He borrowed the title from the official slogan of The Washington Post. Earlier, this phrase was also popularized by one of the most famous American investigative journalist, Bob Woodward.
It turned out to be somewhat prophetic for further developments within EANA itself.
About the European Alliance of News Agencies
The organization was https://www.newsalliance.org/ founded in 1956 and it now consists of 32 leading European news agencies: AFP (France), ANSA (Italy), ATA (Albania), Anadolu Agency (Turkey), ANA (Andorra) , ANA-MPA (Greece), APA (Austria), Belga (Belgium), BTA (Bulgaria), HINA (Croatia), CNA (Cyprus), CTK (Czech Republic), ANP (Netherlands), FENA (Bosnia and Herzegovina), STT (Finland), DPA (Germany), MTI (Hungary), Keystone-SDA (Switzerland), KosovaPress (Kosovo), LUSA (Portugal), NTB (Norway), PA Media (UK), PAP (Poland), Ritzaus (Denmark), Agerpres (Romania), TASR (Slovakia), STA (Slovenia), EFE (Spain), AZERTAC (Azerbaijan), Tanjug (Serbia), TT (Sweden), and Ukrinform (Ukraine).
TASS's membership in the Alliance was suspended on February 27, 2022. TASS was stripped of the right to participate in meetings, conferences, and general assembly. It cannot be represented in EANA's elected bodies, and neither can it delegate or transfer its powers.
In the Alliance's Statutes, everything is logical and transparent, just like in a modern newsroom: "EANA’s aim is to secure that member news agencies can work as providers of unbiased news," "EANA supports the principles of freedom of the press and shall strive to facilitate for member news agencies in accordance with these principles." In addition, the Alliance safeguards and promotes "the common interests of its members in all areas essential to their work and activities."
Ukrinform has stepped onto the European integration path even before Ukraine did, by becoming a member of the European Alliance of News Agencies in 1995.
Suspension of TASS membership
Work in news agencies is primarily about the speed. And this isn’t only about delivering news, but also about professional decision-making, because challenges in the media space (the latest ones include pandemics, conflicts, wars, and the increasing flow of fake news, etc.) require a quick organizational response. So the first decision the Alliance made after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and suppression of media freedom in Russia by the Kremlin regime came rather quick.
On February 27, 2023, the Council (EANA’s executive body) at its meeting convened in response to the relevant appeal by the Polish Press Agency, suspended TASS’s membership in EANA until the General Assembly (the Alliance’s highest body, the annual gathering of all member agencies) decides whether TASS should be expelled from the organization, according to the Statutes.
The Council stated that the new media regulation introduced by Russia’s watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has severely limited the freedom of mass media, as a result of which TASS is unable to provide unbiased news, which is contrary to the purpose of the Alliance's activities defined in the Statutes.
It was hardly possible to expect that during the next two years, the organizations would make three attempts to expel TASS, all to no avail. The Alliance faced an institutional crisis.
In the mentioned book, Democracy Dies in Darkness, the then president of EANA, Clemens Pig, wrote the following about the event: “Immediately after the invasion of Ukraine, Russian leader Vladimir Putin demonstrated how ‘easy’ it is to completely turn off the democratic light using the example of the TASS news agency.” According to him, TASS, the English-language version of which circulated “more or less objective information” in contrast to the propaganda content offered by RIA Novosti, could no longer remain objective after the introduction of new rules by Roskomnadzor, which, in particular, prohibited the use of the terms "war" or "invasion". By the way, TASS repeatedly used this "contrast" as an argument in its favor within the Alliance.
General Assembly 2022, Take 1: "They are not there"
The Extraordinary General Assembly of EANA was held in Sarajevo in a few months, in May 2022. The day before that, the Alliance held a conference, where the topic of the war in Ukraine dominated the agenda. A very demonstrative example was noted of refutation by AFP fact-checkers of one of the most cynical fakes produced by Russia’s defense ministry, which was shared by the Russian "media", including TASS. The fake story alleged a “staged” nature of reporting of Russian atrocities in Bucha.
According to the EANA Statutes, the decision to expel an agency from the Alliance shall be taken by at least three quarters of the members attending a General Assembly. There are no direct provisions in the Statutes on expulsion for violating the principles of freedom of the press. Voting shall be open unless at least five member agencies request that it be run by secret ballot.
The agenda of that General Assembly included a vote to expel TASS. If three-quarters of the votes were not secured, the issue was set to be put to a vote of approving the Council's decision to suspend TASS’s membership.
TASS was given the floor ahead of the vote. This is provided for by the legislation of Switzerland, where the Alliance is inrocporated, in case the issue of expulsion of a member from the organization is raised.
The then TASS Director General, Sergey Mikhaylov, had already been subject to international sanctions by then: the European Union in April 2022 imposed restrictions on him as head of the largest Russian news agency, which through its large network of foreign offices spreads distorted information about Ukraine, serving the interests of Russia’s political leadership. Later, similar sanctions were imposed on him by the United Kingdom and Switzerland. So the address by TASS was voiced by First Deputy Director General Mikhail Gusman.
In short, his speech was limited to "they are not there", where "they" means fake news, and "there" means the TASS service (for our international readers, I should clarify that this phrase went viral and turned into a meme after Russian soldiers popped up in Crimea back in 2014, sporting uniform without identification marks, which was followed by Vladimir Putin's public denial that these were in fact Russian military servicemen). Gusman then also referred to the "contrast" between TASS’s content and that of openly propagandistic Russian platforms. He claimed TASS was different.
Indeed, in contrast to the heavyweight propagandists, TASS produces no fake stories of its own, opting to circulate statements of Russia’s top-tier officials and "pundits", often directly quoting them. At the same time, the agency chooses to ignore any facts that would challenge or refute those statements.
At the same time, false and biased reporting by TASS primarily concerns Ukraine and also the USA and a number of Ukraine’s closest allies in Europe. Thus, not all countries whose news agencies are represented in EANA witness this bias to the same degree.
...Three quarters of the votes cast by the agencies attending the General Assembly in Sarajevo were sealed only for the extended suspension. Both votes were secret at the request of five or more members.
Looking ahead - all subsequent votes, directly or indirectly related to the expulsion of TASS, were run under a secret ballot procedure. None of the member agencies publicly expressed their direct support for TASS during EANA’s statutory events, including conferences and general assemblies.
The number of votes for the expulsion of TASS was rather small – only six agencies spoke for the move, including Ukrinform, of course.
It seemed that many members were weighing both their support for Ukraine and Ukrinform in particular (which we really did feel) and their relations with TASS. Since TASS has been an EANA member since 1970, the agency has long invested heavily in international relations. Among other things, the agency partook in setting up a number of global forums, such as the World Congress of News Agencies and the World Media Summit.
In addition, some EANA member agencies represent countries that retained close ties with Russia even after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Another part likely believed that the war would soon be over and that TASS would once again cover the news objectively, at least compared to other Russian media. And while the war goes on, they might suggest, they still have to somehow get updates from as it has become quite dangerous for foreign journalists to keep working in Russia...
Top management reshuffle at TASS
Last summer, TASS went through a leadership change: in July, Andrey Kondrashov, who had for five years (2018–2023) been first deputy chief of Russia’s VGTRK State Holding VGTRK, was responsible for the "information policy" of Russia’s leading propaganda TV channels Rossiya-1, Rossiya-24, and RTR-Planeta. The European Union designated VGTRK in its sanctions list on December 16, 2022, with the following reasoning: "Channels owned by VGTRK provide a platform to Olga Skabeyeva, Dmitry Kiselyov, Vladimir Soloviev and others, who are spreading propaganda and disinformation related to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine." Kondrashov himself was added to the EU sanctions list on June 23, 2023. It was noted that "[b]eing one of its key executives, Andrey Kondrashov is directly responsible for actions of this media corporation. As the First Deputy Director General in charge of information and political broadcasting, he has a direct influence on the way VGTRK informs people about Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and the steps taken by the Russian Government." On October 14, 2022, Kondrashov was added to Canada's sanctions list "Russian Disinformation Agents" for "enabling and supporting Russia’s unjustifiable invasion Russia and attempted annexation of Ukrainian territory". In early 2018, Kondrashov was press secretary of presidential candidate Vladimir Putin’s campaign headquarters. In 2000, 2014, and 2023, Putin conferred on him awards for covering the Second Chechen War, occupation of Crimea, and a full-scale war against Ukraine, respectively.
Four months into his appointment, The Moscow Times wrote that Mikhaylov was dismissed from his post for the coverage of the Wagner Group mutiny attempt that was far too wide, the government believed.
At the same time, Gusman, who for many years was the main figure TASS’s international communications, including with EANA, retained the position of first deputy director general. Despite the current isolation of Russia, he still records interviews with African leaders, shoots documentaries about the Turkish president and the 100th anniversary of Heydar Aliyev's birthday, talks about the "fight for truth" and trust and claims that Russia is a target of fake news attacks rather than a perpetrator of those. When offered to speak up at international forums in Azerbaijan, Turkey, and China he puts forward an idea to establish an association of information agencies of the Non-Aligned Movement. https://news.ru/cis/na-mediaforume-v-shushe-predlozhili-ideyu-dlya-dvizheniya-neprisoedineniya/ Indeed, quite a chance to apply the experience TASS has gained in setting up all kinds of international forums…
General Assembly 2023, Take 2: a majority, which still wasn’t enough
In 2023, at the annual General Assembly in September in Paris, Ukrinform initiated a second vote regarding the expulsion of TASS from the Alliance, laying down in a letter to EANA members a set of professional and legal arguments why the membership of the Russian state agency is in breach of the organization’s Statutes, objectives, and values.
It was obvious to us that the number of votes would reflect the level of readiness of Europe's leading news agencies to fundamentally oppose propaganda and disinformation massively produced by Russia, which since the full-scale invasion has practically gotten rid of all free media, effectively weaponizing the remaining platforms.
Compared to the outcome seen in Sarajevo, the number of votes supporting the move increased: out of 29 agencies attending the meeting, 14 spoke in favor of the expulsion, while 11 spoke against it, and another four abstained. If the decision was to be adopted by a simple majority of votes, it would be sufficient, but sealing three-quarters of all votes was clearly unattainable.
However, the Paris General Assembly showed that membership suspension, which is not even laid down in the EANA Statutes, cannot last indefinitely, unlike expulsion.
The Council of the Alliance responded to the challenge by proposing to hold an extraordinary General Assembly in a few months to pass amendments to the Statutes. These changes would provide for the automatic expulsion from EANA of an information agency whose membership has been suspended for a certain period, if the circumstances that caused the suspension have not changed. It should be recalled that in relation to TASS, it was about the suppression of the freedom of press in Russia, where war cannot be called war.
Since then, the situation in Russia has only worsened, particularly for international journalists. This was evidenced by the arrest in March 2023 of The Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich.
Meanwhile, in May 2023, Arman Soldin, a video reporter from the French news agency AFP, which is an EANA member, was killed in a Russian missile strike near Ukraine’s Chasiv Yar. By the way, it was AFP that hosted the EANA General Assembly in September, and a large portrait photo of Arman was placed in the session hall...
Extraordinary General Assembly 2023, Take 3: TASS on the agenda but between the lines
At EANA’s extraordinary General Assembly held in Vienna in December, the Council of the Alliance put forward a package vote for amendments to the Statutes: on the automatic expulsion of an information agency whose membership remains suspended for a year, as well as on the expansion of the representation of female representatives in the executive body and the establishment of a women's committee
TASS was never mentioned directly, but it was crystal clear it was about them.
However, at least three quarters of the members had to vote for changes to the Statutes. The positive decision fell one vote short. Of the 24 news agencies attending, 17 spoke "for" and seven – "against".
The outcome clearly points to certain progress, but no decision has ultimately been made. "Shame on us," someone exclaimed in the session hall after the voting result was announced...
So what are the agencies that voted against?
Despite a secret ballot procedure, it is not difficult to guess that most represent countries that have retained close relations with Russia. This is below a quarter of all members. However, at least two agencies from Western Europe have apparently joined this camp. Their move is unlikely to be related to their governments’ foreign policies. This is more about professional personal ties. Had the voting been open, their domestic audiences would have probably been quite surprised by such a position...
However, this article is not about researching their relations with Russia.
The "beyond politics" discourse, which implied solely professional cooperation, dominated the EANA events for years. Among other reasons, this is due to the fact that among EANA members there are many news agencies that are partially or fully funded by their respective governments so political nuances can indeed significantly affect their work.
At the same time, Russian "media" are no longer about politics. Having effectively become one of the aggressor state’s infowar tools, they are now about war crimes, hundreds of thousands civilian deaths and injuries, destruction and devastation, which will eventually result in actual court verdicts, including targeting Russian propagandists.
But the professional community in the democratic world does have some tools to respond. At the level of the European journalistic circles, it should be recognized that no actual media outlets exist in today's Russia. What Russia hosts is purely mass propaganda platforms. Those should be expelled from European professional associations.
Should their representatives be freely accredited in European countries? In September 2023, Gusman proudly declared that TASS offices operate in 18 European countries, and only with Poland does the agency have certain issues...
One can judge how "impartial" TASS is and how it utilizes its offices scattered across Europe by the example of the massive strike on Ukraine by Russia on January 2, when Russian troops launched 99 missiles of various types and 35 Shahed kamikaze drones. As a result of that attack, five people were killed (the death toll subsequently rose) and 130 were injured. More than 250 civil infrastructure sites sustained damage. How TASS covered the shelling?
"Russia’s Armed Forces launched a high-precision missile and drone barrage at defense industry facilities in Kyiv and its suburbs: missile and drone production sites, military equipment repair sites, depots where Western-supplied missiles, ammunition, and aviation weapons are stored – the strike has achieved its goal, all facilities have been hit, reported the Russian Ministry of Defense. Another piece covered power outages and interrupted water supplies in certain areas. Not even a word was penned about Ukrainian casualties or damage to civil infrastructure!
At the same time, on January 3, TASS published an indignant report over the answers that its correspondents in Brussels and Paris heard to their questions from the European Commission and the French Foreign Ministry about the shelling of Russia’s Belgorod on December 30. Its news piece entitled "The Russian embassy says EU once again turns a blind eye to an act of terrorism by Ukraine" https://tass.ru/politika/19672213 offers comments on the European Commission spokesman’s response.
"As emphasized by the mission, the official representative of the European commission on foreign policy issues, Peter Stano, in his response to a TASS question, signed off on the fact that the European Union is an accomplice and sponsor of the Kyiv regime, which commits deliberate acts of terrorism against the civilian population of Russia, presenting it as the ‘legitimate right of Ukraine to self-defense.’”
The comment on the similar response to TASS by the French Foreign Ministry is provided not by the Russian diplomatic mission but Russia’s ex-President Dmitry Medvedev, who employed his traditional vocabulary. https://tass.ru/politika/19672543. In the report entitled "Medvedev sharply responds to French Foreign Ministry’s words on Belgorod strike," TASS writes: “’Filth. Freaks. Bastards,’ Medvedev responded.”
Ukrinform is grateful to EANA for all the support provided since the outset of the full-scale war. At the same time, we are not only ashamed, but also unbearably hurt by the very fact that TASS remains a member of the Alliance.
So that the principles of freedom of the press are not lost amid secret ballots, we decided to bring some light into the “dark space” of Europe’s modern newsroom, where TASS has been lurking.
The piece was written by Natalia Kostina, the chief of the international desk at Ukrinform.
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