Russia has promised further crackdowns on British media outlets operating in the country, after UK media regulator Ofcom banned the Kremlin-backed television channel RT.
The Russian embassy in the UK said it was considering how to respond to the decision to remove RT’s broadcast licence: “The Russian side therefore reserves itself the right, as per normal international practice, to respond respectively with regard to the activity of British media in Russia.”
The BBC has been concerned that its operations in Russia could be severely curtailed as part of a tit-for-tat retribution move by the Russian state. The corporation has curtailed its Russian-language reporting from within the country but continues with English-language reporting led by Steve Rosenberg, its Russia editor.
RT vanished from British television screens two weeks ago as a result of EU sanctions but the UK media regulator’s decision makes it almost impossible for it to return to the country’s airwaves.
The decision does not stop RT, formerly known as Russia Today, publishing online output aimed at British audiences – which often reached larger audiences than the television channel – because Ofcom regulates only broadcast outlets.
RT faced 29 investigations by Ofcom into specific breaches of British impartiality rules over its coverage of the war in Ukraine. The channel had portrayed the invasion as a peacekeeping mission to protect pro-Russia breakaway states.
But Ofcom said it instead made the unusually quick decision to revoke RT’s licence because of Russia’s introduction of laws that criminalised journalistic output that departed from the Russian state’s narrative, “especially in relation to the invasion of Ukraine”.
“We consider that given these constraints it appears impossible for RT to comply with the due impartiality rules of our broadcasting code in the circumstances,” the regulator said.
The Guardian understands the parent company that produces RT’s UK-based output is in the process of being liquidated, with British-based staff expecting to lose their jobs. The television channel’s studios at Millbank Tower in Westminster were being emptied of equipment on Thursday afternoon.
The Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, called last month for RT’s British broadcasting licence to be revoked. Government ministers, including Boris Johnson, pushed Ofcom for a quick decision while emphasising that the regulator remained independent of politicians.
A spokesperson for RT said it still hoped to reach British audiences online but the channel “has come under immense pressure as part of a concerted effort to stifle alternative voices in news”.
It added: “There is no doubt that Ofcom’s decision to revoke RT’s broadcasting licence is political. For many years the UK was looking for a formal reason to close RT but they tried to maintain the appearance of maintaining freedom of speech.
“Now all masks are off. We were banned from working for one reason: any point of view in the west that is different from the official one now has simply no right to exist.”
Ofcom said it had taken concerns about freedom of expression into account but it concluded that the decision to immediately revoke RT’s licence was a “proportionate and necessary” move in a democratic society.
They said the decision would “protect audiences from harmful partial broadcast news services in the UK” and maintain audiences’ trust and public confidence in the broadcast licensing regime.
The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, welcomed Ofcom’s decision and said RT’s “lies and propaganda” had “absolutely no place on our screens”.
She had previously told MPs she hoped the watchdog’s investigations into “due impartiality” at the broadcaster would result in the removal of its licence.
The shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, said Labour also welcomed Ofcom’s decision. “Tackling state disinformation is vital to protect our security and democracy, yet inexplicably the online safety bill published yesterday by government fails to mention this,” she said.
“Ministers must strengthen the bill and ensure that state actors trying to undermine our country are thwarted.” The Guardian