The head of Russian television channel RT says the Kremlin-funded outlet is already suffering the consequences of having to register as a foreign agent in the U.S. amid allegations that it participated in attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
A Capitol Hill committee decided Nov. 29 to revoke RT’s accreditation to cover Congress, and RT has been shut out of news events and suffered damage to its reputation, said Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the operation once called Russia Today.
“In the U.S., the country that has always been lecturing the world about the value of freedoms – of freedom of speech, of everyone’s right to speak up – the U.S. has now become a beacon, a leader, in this movement to shut everyone up,” Simonyan said in an Associated Press interview at RT’s Moscow headquarters Friday. “That’s so disappointing.”
RT insists it is a legitimate news and information network, and compares itself to the U.S.-funded Voice of America or Britain’s government-supported BBC.
But U.S. intelligence agencies say RT and state-funded Russian news agency Sputnik, for which Simonyan also serves as editor-in-chief, produced biased reports to undermine faith in the election process, damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and promote Donald Trump.
Governments in Britain, Germany and France also have complained about RT and its intentions, especially its reporting around European elections.
In the U.S., RT’s slickly produced programs can be accessed on some cable services, the internet, on social media and YouTube, and Simonyan says they’re no less balanced or impartial than reports of other news organizations.
“Listen, your own president thinks that your media is, almost all of it, is fake,” she said.
“In Russia, all of the American media are seen as carrying out the U.S. government’s policy or American policy,” she noted at another point.
RT’s programs follow a familiar cable news format, but often with guests who espouse views critical of Western systems. CNN veteran talk show host Larry King has a regular program on RT, as does former MSNBC personality Ed Schultz, known for pointing out problems of income inequality in the United States.
The U.S. government argues that the foreign agent designation was meant only to make clear to RT’s audience that it is a Russian station advancing Russia’s interests and says the broadcaster is not being blocked or censored in America. The designation was ordered by the Justice Department under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law passed before World War II to label German and Nazi publications as propaganda.
Simonyan said she can’t believe RT’s audience needed to know more than it already did about its source of funding.
“We’ve never made a secret of the fact that we came from Russia,” she said. “At any interview I ever gave, at any press conference … all the time, almost daily, we state that we come from Russia.”
Steven Barnett, communications professor at the University of Westminster in London, said he sees some merit in RT’s argument that requiring it to register as a foreign agent is infringing on its journalistic rights.
He said its journalists are not likely to challenge Russian President Putin but seem to have “a measure of discretion and freedom” when reporting on Russia and the world.
“It’s conducted along professional journalistic standards, they try to be as accurate as possible and check sources, and they’ll try to cover stories from a perspective that is not Western-dominated,” Barnett said.
He does believe, however, that viewers should be told they are watching a channel funded by the Russian government so they can make their own judgments about the material.
Since the U.S. decision, Russia in retaliation has adopted its own law to deem some media companies as foreign agents and it has named U.S.-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. It is so far unclear what it means in practice for those organizations in Russia.
Simonyan, known as a pugnacious defender of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, was tapped to run RT when it was created in 2005. At the time, she was only 25.
She denies that RT is under the control of Putin or the Kremlin and says she has never even spoken to Putin on the telephone. But documents for the Russian leader’s re-election campaign name her as one of the “trusted persons” around him supporting his candidacy.
She says RT has editorial independence and brushed off a question on whether she has ever received editorial instructions from Putin or those around him.
“Our budget is controlled by so many people, including the whole of the Russia State Duma, that if I listened to everyone who was complaining … about our broadcasts, I would have hung myself by now,” she said.
This year, she said, RT will get about $300 million, less than the $700 million U.S. allocation to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S.-government-funded stations.
“I’m so tired of this argument that all we ever do is under Kremlin orders and so and so forth. Tell me, how is it possible? I am not on the air. If you watch RT, you will see that all of our shows are hosted by people to whom it would be impossible to tell them anything.”
In the interview, Simonyan said she was weary of conflict, especially between Russia and the United States.
“When the world normalizes, everything is going to be fine with RT,” she said. “When the U.S. and Russia get along again – and I don’t see any deep reasons why we shouldn’t get along – … we are going to work normally like a normal news organization.”