In Depth

Why Russia’s media regulator is targeting the BBC

Kremlin hits back at Ofcom’s decision to censure RT over breach of impartiality laws

Russia’s media regulator has announced it is launching an investigation into whether the BBC is in compliance with Russian law, in an apparent tit-for-tat retaliation after Ofcom censured Kremlin-backed news channel RT. 

Russian watchdog Roskomnadzor says it is looking into the activities of the BBC World News channel and BBC internet sites to determine whether they have broken impartiality rules during their news and current affairs programmes.

A statement from the regulator added that the move is a direct response to a decision by the UK media regulator, which on Thursday condemned state-owned network RT, formerly known as Russia Today, for impartiality rule breaches.

“The results of our check will be announced separately,” Roskomnadzor said.

Founded in 2005, RT has been “accused in the West of operating as a propaganda outlet for the Kremlin”,  although the channel “rejects the allegations, saying it provides audiences with alternative angles and viewpoints to mainstream Western media”, Bloomberg reports.

Ofcom had initially placed RT under investigation over its reporting of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Wiltshire in March, accusing the channel of failing to be impartial in seven news and current affairs programmes over a six-week period up to May.

The Ofcom investigation found that RT’s reporting of the ongoing war in Syria was also in breach of impartiality laws.

The regulator later stated that it was “minded to consider imposing a statutory sanction” on RT, for failing to give due weight to a wide range of voices on a matter of major political controversy, reports Irish broadcaster RTE. Possible penalties could include the broadcaster being fined or even having its licence revoked.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright has issued a statement that used what The Guardian calls “substantially stronger language than Ofcom” and that appeared to “urge a tough punishment”.

“Russia Today’s mask as an impartial news provider is clearly slipping,” he said. “We know some foreign regimes will use any vehicle at their disposal to sow discord in the West. It is vital that as a society we remain vigilant to the spread of harmful disinformation, and Ofcom has strong powers to tackle it where it occurs in broadcast news.”

The Kremlin has been equally quick to point a finger of blame at the BBC.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said: “Let’s say many of us have had many concerns over a long time about the BBC. About their tendentious, biased and pre-programmed coverage.

“Of course no one has the right to criticise the media for this. That can only be done by the relevant legal body. This is why it is happening.”

Reuters reports that an “unnamed source familiar with the investigation” had told Russian media that the BBC’s activities in the country  “could be restricted if it was found to be in breach of Russian law”.

The BBC has denied the allegations. “As everywhere else in the world, the BBC works in Russia in full compliance with the country’s laws and regulations to deliver independent news and information to its audiences,” said a spokesperson for the broadcaster. 

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