The imposition of sanctions against British citizen and journalist Graham Phillips is an appalling violation of freedom of speech – which to have meaning must mean freedom to say things which disagree with the government, the media and/or majority public opinion.
Phillips has for almost a decade published and broadcast from Ukraine material which is openly supportive of the pro-Russian section of the Ukrainian population. He has operated from first Kyiv, then Odessa, then the Donbass. Phillips was sceptical of the Maidan protests and the popular revolution narrative. He subsequently for years covered much that the Western elites do not wish people to know – the shelling of civilian areas held by Russian separatists, the Nazi links of some Ukrainian military and politicians, the discrimination against Russian speakers and banning of Russian media and education.
All that is one side of the story in Ukraine, and the side that western governments and media are extremely keen you no longer can see. The information Phillips was providing was not in general untrue. The facts were selective and the interpretation partial, but that is also absolutely true of the western propaganda to which we are continually subjected.
In some incidents in the current war, it is impossible at a distance to be certain who was responsible for various acts. I see no reason in general to believe the BBC over Graham Phillips, or Graham Phillips over the BBC. It is good to have different sources.
Phillips has been criticised for broadcasting an interview with British prisoner Aiden Aslin, held by Russian separatist forces. The criticism is broadly correct. As I pointed out on twitter in the early days of this war, it is contrary to the Geneva Convention to make public display of prisoners.
This law was broken repeatedly by the Ukrainian side, with blanket footage of Russian soldiers phoning their mothers. Not one (except me) of those complaining about the Aslin interview complained about those. There are mitigating factors for Phillips – the interview was apparently Aslin’s initiative and he appeared pleased to give it. It was however still wrong. It is a good law – you never know what coercion or violence is applied to POW’s off-screen.
Personally there is much in Phillips’ line on Ukraine that I do not agree with. It is plain to me that broadly, the majority of the people of Ukraine genuinely wished in 2014 to move towards the EU rather than Russia, and dramatic efforts by Putin to reverse that process backfired.
But because I disagree does not mean Phillips should not be allowed to put across his view. It is also plain to me that Phillips was correct that the rights of the pro-Russian minority have indeed been trampled by ultra-nationalist Ukrainian forces, and Ukraine is a desperately corrupt and dysfunctional country.
The current proxy war is a disaster. It is not only killing tens of thousands in Ukraine, it is producing economic consequences that seriously damage the poor worldwide. The delight of politicians, the military and the arms industry is evident – and that is true of both Russia and the West. When wars happen, the bad people on all sides profit from them. The people suffer.
So I do not agree with Phillips’ cheerleading for the Russian “side” in this disastrous war. The answer to war is not to take a side but peace, and that is desperately needed.
The war will end with Ukraine ceding Crimea to Russia and perhaps more territory. Had Zelensky negotiated before the war started, Crimea plus the Minsk Agreements would have been enough. The Ukrainian negotiating position radically worsens daily. NATO is cheerfully sending Ukraine to disaster. The Russian invasion was illegal; the response now is immoral. The terms of the eventual settlement are obvious. Let it be reached now, without more pointless death.
But for Phillips, a British citizen, to be severely legally punished for publishing opinions about a war in which his own state is not a party – nor, it is important to state, in formal alliance with any party – is entirely without precedent. If we accept that Phillips supports the Russian side in the war, why should it be illegal to do that? How does this principle play out? Am I to be sanctioned for supporting the Palestinians? What about those who uphold the rights of the Houthis against the Saudi death grip?
What about american journalists who opposed the Vietnam War? Or the British journalists who stood up against the attack on Egypt in the Suez Crisis? What of campaigners against the Iraq War? When you think it through, the implications of this action against Phillips are simply appalling.
The sanctions against Phillips are serious. A British citizen has had his property seized by the state, his assets and bank accounts frozen, his ability to earn a living crashed by the blocking of funding mechanisms. All this for publishing opinions on a foreign war contrary to those of the British government.
This is a truly frightening attack on freedom of speech, whether or not you agree with Phillips’ views.
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