(22 Jan 2018) The head of Russian television channel RT, accused by US intelligence agencies as being a part of a Russian campaign to influence last year's US presidential election, says Washington's order to register as a foreign agent is already hurting.
Since the US Justice Department forced the station's US affiliate to register as a foreign agent two months ago, RT has found itself losing access to news events and has suffered damage to its reputation in the market, according to Margarita Simonyan, the combative and passionate head of the 13-year-old operation once called Russia Today.
Her indignation at the decision came blazing through in an interview with The Associated Press in RT's central Moscow headquarters on Friday.
Known as a pugnacious defender of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, the executive decried what she calls an American retreat from its core value of freedom of the press.
"In the US, 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 US has now become a beacon, a leader, in this movement to shut everyone up," she declared.
"That's so disappointing."
Her argument hinges on whether RT should be treated as a legitimate news and information network, as she insists, or as a clever propaganda arm of the Russian state, as many critics in Europe and the United States contend.
RT sees itself as an underdog broadcaster carrying Russian views and perspectives onto the international media scene, similar to US-government-funded Voice of America or Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe or to the British-government-supported BBC.
But US intelligence agencies stated in a recent finding that RT and government-funded news agency Sputnik, for which Simonyan also serves as editor-in-chief, are sending biased reports meant to undermine faith in the US election process, hurt the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and support the campaign of Donald Trump.
Similar accusations have been leveled by a recent Democratic Party report on Russian interference, and by the Atlantic Council think tank, among others.
Governments in Britain, Germany and France have also complained about RT and its intentions, especially its reporting around European elections.
The US government argues that the foreign agent designation is meant only to make clear to RT's audience that it is a Russian station advancing Russia's interests and it is not being blocked or censored on the American market.
Simonyan was having none of that.
"As a journalist you can't pretend not to understand what it means reputationally and what it means for our journalists, what it means for our work as a journalistic organisation, that now we cannot come like any other news organisation, stand in line and get access to information like any other news organisation," she said, citing a recent decision that revoked RT's accreditation to cover US Congress.
Consequences have been real, she said, for RT's staffing and its social media presence.
"Some of the people are leaving, because it is tough for them morally to work as a foreign agent, less guests are coming, and more importantly, maybe, even a lot our partners in the US are now telling us that they either have to cancel our agreements or reconsider the agreements, the prices, the conditions of the agreements that we have had for years," she told AP.
With its slogan "Question More", slick production values and British- and American-accented presenters and news hosts, the station aims to be a Russian-flavoured competitor for audience eyeballs, promising not to deliver the same old news in the same old way.
In the US, its programmes can be accessed on some cable services, the internet, on social media and YouTube.
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