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Europe increases pressure on Kremlin-backed broadcaster RT

PARIS — As the world responds to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin-backed broadcaster RT is facing renewed scrutiny in Europe.

On Thursday, Poland — a longtime foe of Moscow — announced the country would ban the Russian TV channel.

Within the past few days, European capitals have also ramped up the pressure, imposing sanctions on the TV network’s editor-in-chief. The U.K. has questioned whether the channel should be allowed to broadcast in the country, and French lawmakers formally asked for its license to be removed — only weeks after Germany imposed an outright ban.

A French star reporter, Frédéric Taddeï, also announced he would stop hosting his daily talk show on RT “out of loyalty for France.” 

Described in the West as a propaganda tool for the Kremlin, RT — formerly known as Russia Today — is part of an effort to disseminate pro-Russian rhetoric asserting that President Vladimir Putin is a peacemaker and that the NATO alliance is an aggressive warmonger. The Russian ruler has repeated that rhetoric in recent days to justify his invasion of Ukraine.

In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, a massive information war unfolded both online and offline between Kremlin-backed news outlets and online trolls and media and actors both in Ukraine and across the West. According to French public radio France Inter, RT France’s coverage of Ukraine was obviously one-sided and biased toward the Russian government.

On the other hand, RT is part of a much wider, decades-long Russian information operation, and prohibiting just one broadcaster might be meaningless or counterproductive, some politicians and experts warn. 

Asked whether she was in favor of an RT ban in Europe, Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová told POLITICO in a statement that “it is not up to me to decide, it is up to independent national media regulators … We all rely on the extra vigilance of regulators and coordinated action.” 

“We should have a broader look and not focus only on [RT and Sputnik],” she warned. “The Kremlin has weaponized information. Disinformation is part of Russia military doctrine and so is running of foreign influence operations.” 

France makes three

France is the third Western country to increase pressure on RT, weeks after President Emmanuel Macron explicitly targeted foreign “propaganda media” in his New Year speech to the press.  

In early February, Germany’s media regulator banned RT’s German-language TV channel because it didn’t have the proper license. RT has appealed the decision. On Wednesday, the U.K. government ordered a review into whether the Russian broadcaster should continue to be allowed to operate in the country. 

Now, RT is coming under fire in France, where the center-right chairman of the French Senate’s culture committee, Laurent Lafon, officially asked the national audiovisual regulator Arcom to ban the Russian channel and its website. 

In the letter to Arcom, seen by POLITICO, Lafon wrote that the Russian government’s “propaganda actions are now relayed daily in France by the Russia Today channel and website without real contradiction.” He also argues the broadcaster doesn’t respect its legal obligations to ensure pluralism of opinions because it doesn’t give a platform to the Russian opposition or ask the Russian people about their opinion of Putin’s actions. 

Responding to Lafon’s arguments, a spokesperson for the regulator said, “Arcom is particularly vigilant in ensuring that RT France complies with its legal and contractual obligations.”

Arcom has already been looking into a long-term complaint against the Russian broadcaster, filed by an NGO called Media Democracies Europe — but the regulator could decide to trigger an emergency procedure of sorts in the coming days if it deems necessary. “If it considers it justified, the regulator will not hesitate to use, without delay, the legal tools at its disposal, which can go as far as requesting the suspension of its broadcasting,” the spokesperson added. 

The French culture ministry, which also received Lafon’s letter, had no comment. RT France released a statement “condemning the political pressure” applied to Arcom. 

The limits of bans

While RT’s reach across Europe is mixed, the network is also only one of several Kremlin-backed media organizations, including Sputnik and Ruptly, and fits within a much wider strategy to manipulate information.

A senior EU official alerted on Tuesday that Russian disinformation was being pushed through an “astonishing coordination” between different Russian state-media outlets, government officials and the wider online ecosystem. 

MEP Nathalie Loiseau, a member of Macron’s party, is among those who do not think an outright ban of RT is the solution, proposing instead to relentlessly track and expose falsehoods as they arise.  

“Banning these media outlets means closing the Russian space to ours and cutting the Russian people [off] from objective international information. Is that the right solution?” Loiseau said. 

Following Germany’s ban of RT Deutsch, Moscow forced German media outlet Deutsche Welle to shut down its Russian operations, halting the broadcast of its Russian-language television programs and removing its journalists’ accreditations. 

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford, warned that RT’s real influence on the greater public in the U.K. in particular and considerations of freedom of expression had to be carefully assessed, particularly during a major crisis. 

“It’s one thing to be critical of these outlets … It’s another thing entirely to make a political decision to ban them or to encourage other actors to ban them without providing a sort of a clear and public justification as to why that is being done,” he said, referring to the need to preserve freedom of expression in democratic countries and avoid a crackdown on media organizations.

Mark Scott contributed to this report.

This article has been updated.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Tech policy coverage: Pro Technology. Our expert journalism and suite of policy intelligence tools allow you to seamlessly search, track and understand the developments and stakeholders shaping EU Tech policy and driving decisions impacting your industry. Email [email protected] with the code ‘TECH’ for a complimentary trial.

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