Last Monday, October 17, the Kremlin-sponsored broadcasting network RT – also known as Russia Today – reported that the National Westminster Bank would close the network’s UK bank accounts in mid-December.
The British government, which has been critical of RT for many years, denied any involvement in the decision, while Russian officials immediately called the move an “openly political decision.” While it remains unclear how this will effect RT’s broadcasting in the UK, the Russian establishment has overwhelmingly condemned the move as outright censorship.
“Long live freedom of speech!” tweeted RT’s chief editor Margarita Simonyan. “It seems that freedom of speech is completely lost in Albion’s Russophobic fog,” Russia’s foreign ministry commissioner for human rights, Konstantin Dolgov, tweeted. “It looks like, as it leaves the EU, London has decided to leave behind all its obligations towards freedom of speech. As they say, best to start a new life without bad habits,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook.
As these comments make clear, the UK has played right into Russian hands, allowing a government that regularly engages in censorship to hypocritically invoke freedom of expression to defend its actions.
Since its launch in 2005, RT has positioned itself as an alternative to Western mainstream media. While offering progressive, censorship-free coverage of the Western world, the network presents a one-sided and oftentimes intentionally deceitful perspective on Russia’s domestic and international affairs. RT’s agenda is driven by an anti-Western, adversarial approach, which Western politicians and newsmakers understandably view as biased and undesirable.
The UK, in particular, has challenged the network numerous times. In November 2014, Ofcom, the UK’s independent media and communications regulator, threatened to revoke the channel’s license for breaching “broadcasting regulations on impartiality with its coverage of the Ukraine crisis.” In March 2015, Ofcom launched yet another investigation into “anti-Western comments in [the] Ukraine debate.” Responding to Ofcom’s 2015 investigation into RT’s bias, American journalist and commentator Glenn Greenwald wrote in The Intercept that, “…all media outlets composed of and run by human beings are ‘biased,’ and that certainly includes the leading British outlets, which rail against Russia (and every other perceived adversary of the West) at least as much as RT defends it.”
It is hard to disagree with Greenwald’s statement that all media outlets are inherently biased to one extent or another. But in the case of RT, this bias is more than just a flaw of human nature. RT’s anti-Western prejudice is intentional, heavily regulated, and aimed at creating positive coverage of Russia overseas.
It is unsurprising that the UK political establishment wants to minimize RT’s influence in the country. But, preventing RT from broadcasting in the UK furthers, rather than exposes, the double standard that drives RT’s informational strategy, namely, to promote free expression in covering one region or issue, while strictly prohibiting it for other regions and topics.
Shutting down and censoring RT will only give it more legitimacy. Instead, government and media watchdogs should focus on exposing and debunking RT’s fabricated reports and misleading coverage. Exposing propaganda is far more effective than censoring it.