Thursday

30th Mar 2017

Feature

British bank spotlights Russian propaganda

  • Simonyan with Russian leader Vladimir Putin - her claim that NatWest had closed all Russia Today's accounts was denied by the bank (Photo: kremlin.ru)

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.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Zakharova - claim that British government tried to gag Russia Today not substantiated (Photo: mid.ru)

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.

Risk appetite

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.

Summit debate

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.

Free speech

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.

EU shames Russia on Aleppo 'massacre'

The EU has named Russia as being partly responsible for a “massacre” of “historic” proportions in Syria, but ruled out extra sanctions or military force.

EU parliament hosts Russian propaganda circus

Russian TV, blacklisted officials, and lobbyists in the EU parliament on Wednesday hurled accusations at a deceased Russian lawyer and attack EU institutions.

Opinion

A Normandy summit of ulterior motives

Today’s summit between the German, French, Russian and Ukrainian leaders will not settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine. It could, however, shape the EU response to the broader Russia challenge.

EU myth-busters set for budget upgrade

One year after its launch, East Stratcom, the EU’s “tiny” counter-propaganda cell, has created a 20,000-strong following and could get a €1 million budget.

Interview

Let's not lecture Trump, says top German MP

Europeans need to propose "projects of common interest" to the US president to preserve "Western unity" on Russia, Norbert Roettgen, the chair of Bundestag's foreign affairs committee said.

News in Brief

  1. UK publishes 'Great Repeal Bill' plan to replace EU laws
  2. Scots share May's vision for Brexit deal, survey says
  3. Coalition talks leader expects Dutch government by summer
  4. EU commission allows ex-member Hill to join law firm
  5. Reuters: Greece and lenders move closer to deal
  6. Italy: Le Pen win would mean 'permanent political risk'
  7. Danish parliament misinformed on Nord Stream 1
  8. UK delivered its Article 50 letter to the EU

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  2. The Idealist QuarterlyCan Progressive Stories Survive Our Post-Truth Era? After-Work Discussion on 6 April
  3. ACCAG20 Citizens Want 'Big Picture' Tax Policymaking, According to Global Survey
  4. Belgrade Security ForumCall for Papers: European Union as a Global Crisis Manager - Deadline 30 April
  5. European Gaming & Betting Association60 Years Rome Treaty – 60 Years Building an Internal Market
  6. Malta EU 2017New EU Rules to Prevent Terrorism and Give More Rights to Victims Approved
  7. European Jewish Congress"Extremists Still Have Ability and Motivation to Murder in Europe" Says EJC President
  8. European Gaming & Betting AssociationAudiovisual Media Services Directive to Exclude Minors from Gambling Ads
  9. ILGA-EuropeTime for a Reality Check on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  10. UNICEFHuman Cost to Refugee and Migrant Children Mounts Up One Year After EU-Turkey Deal
  11. Malta EU 2017Council Adopts New Rules to Improve Safety of Medical Devices
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Energy Research: How to Reach 100 Percent Renewable Energy

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Party of European SocialistsWe Must Renew Europe for All Europeans
  2. MEP Tomáš ZdechovskýThe European Commission Has Failed in Its Fight Against Food Waste
  3. ILGA-EuropeEP Recognises Discrimination Faced by Trans & Intersex People
  4. Nordic Council of Ministers25 Nordic Bioeconomy Cases for Sustainable Change
  5. European Free AllianceSupporting Artur Mas: Democracy and Freedom Cannot Be Convicted
  6. UNICEFSyria Conflict 6 Years On: Children's Suffering at Its Worst
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsDomestic Violence in Tajikistan: Time to Right the Wrongs
  8. European Trust SummitCorporate Strategy and Public Affairs in a Low-Trust World - Conference 31 May
  9. Malta EU 2017Agreement Reached to Involve Consumers in Financial Services Policymaking
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cities Gather Against Violent Extremism & Introduce Nordic Safe Cities
  11. World VisionFears and Dreams of Syria's Children and Their Peers Around the World
  12. Mission of China to the EUEU Window Chinese Government Academic Scholarship 2017/18 - Apply Now