British bank spotlights Russian propaganda
A British bank’s decision to stop working with suppliers of a Kremlin media firm has put the spotlight on Russian propaganda in Europe.
NatWest bank said in a letter on 12 October to a UK-based supplier of services to Russia Today that it would stop its credit line in November and close its bank accounts in December.
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Russia Today is a Kremlin-funded TV broadcaster and website.
It says it gives an alternative view on world affairs, but even press freedom NGOs, such as the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, call it a “propaganda” outlet.
Recent Russia Today reports include that the Dutch-led inquiry into the MH17 flight disaster, which said Russia supplied the rocket that hit down the plane, was based on fabricated evidence.
It has said that British broadcaster the BBC staged a false-flag chemical attack in Syria.
It has also said that Western corporations implanted microchips in staff to make them submissive and that US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had links to a secret cult called the Illuminati.
Not quite true
The Russian firm put its own spin on NatWest’s decision on Monday.
Its editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, said on Twitter that NatWest had “closed all our” accounts in Britain.
She posted an image of the bank’s letter, but blurred out whom it was addressed to.
Russia Today and the Russian foreign ministry also said that British authorities had pressured NatWest to gag Russian media for political reasons.
“As it leaves the EU, London has decided to leave behind all its obligations towards freedom of speech”, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said.
The NatWest letter that Simonyan posted did not back her claims, however.
The letter said the bank accounts were not frozen, but remained open until December. The Royal Bank of Scotland group, NatWest’s owner, repeated on Monday that the accounts "remain open and are still operative”.
The accounts also did not belong to Russia Today, but to a UK-based firm that supplied Russia Today.
The firm might have been named in the blurred-out part of Simonyan’s Twitter image, but NatWest has declined to say who it was or to give any reason for its decision.
The British government denied involvement in the events.
“It's a matter for the bank, and it's for them to decide who they offer services to based on their own risk appetite”, the office of British prime minister Theresa May said.
Jonathan Eyal, a Russia specialist at Rusi, a British think tank, told EUobserver that NatWest might have done it “as part of a normal probity operation” on its client.
He said some Western banks were getting rid of clients with “complicated” financial structures because EU and US regulators were issuing more anti-money laundering fines.
A British source with knowledge of NatWest’s operations also told this website the Russia Today supplier may simply have looked a bit dodgy.
"NatWest has been closing … Russian accounts over the years for fear of money laundering. This is not some big freedom of speech issue, but rather just cautious compliance officers”, the source said.
The media dispute comes ahead of an EU summit on Thursday and Friday in Brussels.
Draft summit conclusions, seen by EUobserver, said leaders would hold “a strategic policy debate on relations with Russia”.
An EU source said the talks would cover issues such as “Russian influence operations in the Western Balkans, hybrid warfare, including cyberattacks, and disinformation”.
Hybrid warfare refers to covert operations, including information or economic warfare, designed to destabilise an adversary.
The summit will not decide on counter-measures or on future Russia sanctions, the source said.
EU leaders, last year, created a cell in the EU foreign service, called EU East Stratcom, to debunk Russian disinformation.
It has 11 staff and no fixed budget, but the European Parliament has proposed to allocate it €800,000 in 2017 and to increase personnel to 16 in ideas that await full EU approval.
With Simonyan and Zakharova crying out on free speech, Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based NGO that promotes media pluralism, reserved judgment on the NatWest case.
Johann Bihr, the NGO’s spokesman, told EUobserver on Tuesday that “political reasons cannot be excluded” for the bank's decision, but the facts of the matter are “too blurry” to comment.
He said the NGO normally does not comment on media content, but he said Russia Today’s “methods, and the reporting which is often broadcast on Russia Today, are part of propaganda made in the Kremlin”.
Jerzy Pomianowski, the head of an EU-funded foundation in Brussels, the European Endowment for Democracy (EED), told EUobserver that EU regulators, whether financial or media regulators, were right to take a hard line with firms that broke the rules.
He said every EU state had media codes and that broadcasters who broke them should be “brought to justice” in order to protect the rule of law in Europe.
Reacting to Russia’s complaint on free speech, Pomianowski noted that EU media firms cannot get on TV in Russia due to “political pressure” to block independent content.