Rogers Communications Inc. RCI-B-T has told Canada’s broadcast regulator that it supports pulling TV channels off the air when they are owned by a country subject to Canadian sanctions, including but not limited to Russian state-owned news channel RT.
Rogers made the comment in a written submission to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC, as part of a hearing into whether the Kremlin-controlled network formerly known as Russia Today, and its French-language service RT France, should be removed from a list of non-Canadian channels authorized for distribution here.
While RT is on that list, it has already been removed from many Canadian TV screens. Canada’s biggest TV providers – Rogers, BCE Inc. BCE-T, Telus Corp. T-T and Shaw Communications Inc. SJR-A-X – all pulled it from their channel lineups recently, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that he would ask the CRTC to review the presence of RT on Canadian airwaves. “There is a significant amount of disinformation circulating from Russia, including on social media, and we all need to keep calling it out,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters on Feb. 28.
The invasion has caused more than two million people to flee the country in Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. After Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, the Canadian regulator “received several complaints from the Canadian public regarding the programming on RT,” the regulator wrote as it launched the process on March 3.
A U.S. State Department report in January referred to RT as a critical part of “Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem.” Last week, the channel along with state-owned news agency Sputnik were both banned in the European Union over “systematic information manipulation and disinformation.”
RT has sought the widest distribution possible in Canada by forgoing the usual business model – in which TV providers pay to carry a channel – and instead provided its signal free. In 2017, The Globe and Mail reported that some of the largest TV providers accepted payments from RT to carry the channel. The companies are not required to publicly disclose the terms of their agreements with such channels.
The CRTC received more than 370 submissions, including several from individual Canadians – many of whom called RT propaganda and called on the regulator to ban the channel. Some others opposed removing RT from distribution, arguing that it constituted censorship.
Rogers stopped distributing RT to subscribers on Feb. 28, as Canada was ramping up its sanctions against Moscow, including barring Canadian financial institutions from engaging in transactions with Russia’s central bank, and taking steps alongside allies to block access for Russian banks to the SWIFT international payment system. Rogers’s decision to pull the channel relied on Canada placing sanctions on Russia, which owns RT, according to Rogers Cable vice-president of regulatory, Pam Dinsmore.
“In our view, it would be appropriate for the commission to also consider removing … any programming service that is either owned or controlled by a state that is subject to Canadian sanctions,” Ms. Dinsmore wrote in the company’s submission, adding that this could also apply to other channels including Russian-backed RTR Planeta and Channel One Russia.
The CRTC has stated in the past that it would be “predisposed” to authorize non-Canadian news channels for distribution in Canada, as long as they do not violate regulations such as those against “abusive comment.” In this approach, the regulator “recognizes that the availability of certain of these services may serve the public interest by adding choice, diversity and alternative perspective to the Canadian broadcasting system,” the CRTC wrote in its call for comments last week.
Other non-Canadian news channels authorized for distribution in Canada include Al Jazeera, BBC World, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Sky News International, and Ukraine24, which was added to the list in January. It also includes other state-owned broadcasters such as CCTV (China Central Television).
In the call for comments, the regulator noted a preliminary view that RT may violate provisions on abusive comment under Canada’s Broadcasting Act. “The commission is concerned that the programming broadcast on RT is antithetical to the policy objectives and does not serve the public interest,” it stated.
In its submission, Shaw wrote that the company’s decision to remove RT from its lineup was “consistent” with that preliminary view expressed by the CRTC last week.
But RT’s distributor in Canada, Markham, Ont.-based Ethnic Channels Group Ltd., said in its submission that it was “concerning” that the TV providers took it upon themselves to pull the channel “without notice to subscribers or public consultation.”
“From our perspective, it would be preferable for any decision to restrict access to the RT services be taken through a formal and legal process undertaken by our government – whether it be through removal of the services from the [authorized distribution] list or a sanctions process – rather than through non-transparent decisions taken by [TV providers],” ECG chief executive officer Slava Levin wrote in the submission. He added that the company supports the CRTC process to review the channel’s distribution, “because it is rules-based, transparent, public and reviewable.”
Individuals and companies had until Tuesday to submit comments on the matter. Nothing from BCE or Telus appeared among the submissions posted by the CRTC as of Wednesday morning.
State-controlled channels including RT “are used by the Putin regime to promote toxic narratives, propaganda, lies and conspiracy theories, to spread hate against its critics and enemies, and undermine Western democracies eroding the cohesion within them,” Marcus Kolga, president of the Central and Eastern European Council in Canada and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute think tank, wrote in a submission to the regulator.
Other groups, such as the Canadian Polish Congress, Estonian Central Council in Canada and Ukrainian Canadian Congress, also submitted comments supporting RT’s removal from Canadian airwaves
The CRTC must produce a report by no later than March 16.
With a report from Steven Chase in Ottawa
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