BCE Inc., Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp. and Shaw Communications Inc. are pulling a Russian state-funded television channel from their channel lineups after the minister who oversees Canada’s broadcasting system said Ottawa is exploring “all options” to get RT off the air.
A spokesperson for BCE told The Globe that the Kremlin-controlled television network RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is no longer available in Bell’s channel lineup, while spokespeople for Rogers and Telus said on Sunday that the channel will be removed Monday. Shaw said on Twitter late Sunday that effective Monday it will no longer be carrying the network, adding, “Customers who subscribe to RT as a pick and pay service will receive a credit in their next billing cycle.”
The Conservative Party has called the broadcaster a tool of Moscow that spreads “disinformation and propaganda,” while a January report by the U.S. State Department said the channel has been used to try to sway public opinion about Ukraine in Europe, the United States and even as far away as Latin America.
Ihor Michalchyshyn, chief executive of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said Moscow is using RT to justify its war against Ukraine and that makes it even more crucial to bar it from any Canadian-regulated broadcasting.
The Globe and Mail reported in 2017 that some of the country’s biggest television providers were being paid by RT to carry the channel. Such arrangements are unusual in the TV distribution business, as typically cable and satellite companies pay specialty television channels for the right to distribute them.
Effective tomorrow, Shaw will no longer be carrying Russia Today. Customers who subscribe to RT as a pick and pay service will receive a credit in the next billing cycle.— Shaw Communications (@ShawInfo) February 28, 2022
“It’s really a moral question: Should our cable companies be making money off of the carriage of what is clearly a propaganda channel?” said Barry Kiefl, president of Ottawa-based research firm Canadian Media Research Inc.
Mr. Kiefl called on Canada’s cable and satellite companies to voluntarily stop broadcasting the channel despite the financial hit, noting that Canada’s airspace has been closed to Russian aircraft operators and that Russian alcohol has been pulled from the shelves at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).
Failing that, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) could remove RT from its lists of eligible satellite services for distribution, Mr. Kiefl said.
After The Globe reported in 2017 that Canadian TV providers were being paid to carry RT, opposition members of Parliament called for more transparency into the agreements.
At the time, Mélanie Joly, who was then the Heritage Minister, declined multiple interview requests on the subject, saying that regulating and supervising the Canadian broadcast system is the responsibility of the CRTC. The regulator also declined requests for an interview at the time, saying in an e-mailed statement that the agreements with RT are “competitively sensitive.”
While the CRTC operates at arm’s length from the government, the Heritage Minister’s portfolio includes setting policy that affects how the regulator oversees the industry. Ms. Joly, now Foreign Affairs Minister, had previously used that power. For example, earlier in 2017, she referred a number of renewals of TV licences back to the watchdog, instructing it to reconsider the spending requirements it set for original Canadian programs.
Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen has called on Ottawa to issue an “order of general application directing the [CRTC] to adopt a new broadcasting policy” that revokes the licences of such outlets “so that Russia Today (RT) is taken off Canada’s airwaves.”
Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said Saturday that the federal government is “looking at all options.”
“I share the concerns of many Canadians about the presence of Russia Today in our broadcasting system,” Mr. Rodriguez said on Twitter.
Mr. Kiefl argued that removing the channel from Canada’s broadcast system does not constitute censorship, as those who wish to watch RT could still do so online. “You’re not saying the channel can’t exist, you’re just saying ‘I’m not going to distribute it,’ ” Mr. Kiefl said.
He added that the channel is taking up space that could go to local broadcasters. “The satellite has a limited amount of space – it can only air so many channels.”
On Sunday, RT remained available to Canadian television subscribers, broadcasting headlines such as “Ukraine army allegedly intensifies artillery fire on residential areas” and “Russian TV channels including RT banned in Poland, Finland, Australia.”