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Russia's RT Launches New French Channel Despite 'Propaganda' Charges

Xenia Fedorova, chief executive of RT France
Xenia Fedorova, chief executive of RT France

Russian state broadcaster RT has launched a French-language channel despite being branded this year as a "propaganda" outlet for the Kremlin by officials in the United States, France, and other Western countries.

With a launch budget of around 20 million euros, RT's French channel launch on December 18 became one of its most ambitious projects to date. RT, formerly known as Russia Today, already broadcasts in English, Spanish, and Arabic.

RT already has a foothold in France through a French-language website and a popular YouTube channel with videos dubbed or subtitled in French, some of which have chalked up hundreds of thousands of views.

But the channel's launch from a studio in western Paris comes after the Elysee palace refused to provide RT reporters with credentials to cover presidential news conferences and French President Emmanuel Macron strongly criticized the broadcaster.

Speaking alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Paris press conference in April, Macron accused RT and fellow Kremlin-backed outlet Sputnik of being "agents of influence...and deceitful propaganda" who spread "defamatory untruths."

French regulators say they are on their guard. The head of France's CSA broadcasting authority, Olivier Schrameck, has warned that the agency will be closely watching RT and will intervene quickly in the event of what he called "anomalies."

In Britain, RT has received 14 warnings from regulator Ofcom about reporting that it deemed to be untruthful or biased, particularly on matters involving Ukraine, where Russia has backed separatists in a war against the government since 2014, and Syria, where Russia has propped up President Bashar al-Assad in a six-year civil war.

Speaking to journalists in Paris on December 18, Xenia Fedorova, the French-language station manager and editor in chief, conceded that the network has not as yet received credentials to cover the French presidency.

But she brushed off the criticism and cited some well-known and respected networks that receive funding, like RT, from their home countries, including BBC World and France 24.

"RT stands for news that is not covered by the mainstream media," she said. "We will keep the platform [open] to perspectives and opinions that are either not covered or silenced."

Russia Today was set up in the mid-2000s to counter what Russian President Vladimir Putin saw as the dominance of American and British media organizations, which he says have a pro-Western bias.

The channel is seen by its critics as giving a platform to conspiracy theorists as well as far-right or antiestablishment figures who attack what they portray as Western hypocrisy and corruption.

RT was accused by U.S. intelligence agencies earlier this year of being used by the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

That charge led to an order from the U.S. Justice Department in September for RT to register its U.S. operator as a "foreign agent." The allegations also prompted Twitter to ban advertising from RT and Sputnik.

During the French election campaign earlier this year, Macron accused Sputnik of a "smear campaign" after it reported comments from a conservative legislator accusing him of being a "U.S. agent" backed by a "gay lobby."

At his annual press conference last week, Putin dismissed the allegations of meddling in elections as fiction from a "spy thriller."

Fedorova told AFP in October that "we are not coming to France with the intention of broadcasting fake or partial news."

"Our slogan is: Dare to question. We want to encourage viewers to ask questions and to think outside the information bubble of the mainstream media," she said, adding that editorial decisions will be made in Paris, not Moscow.

The new network aims to recruit a total of 150 people by the end of next year but has struggled to attract top French talent.

In an interview this month with the French daily Le Monde, Fedorova complained of "political pressure on people who want to work with RT or speak well of it."

RT claims that its affiliates in 38 countries are viewed by 70 million people. In France, it can be viewed only online or by subscribers to the Iliad broadband service.

Bouygues Telecom is also due to start distributing RT France in March 2018.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP