Canada’s federal broadcast regulator has ruled that RT, a Kremlin-controlled network, can no longer legally be carried on Canadian television screens.
“Freedom of speech and a range of perspectives are a necessary part of our democracy. However, it is a privilege and not a right to be broadcast in Canada,” the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission wrote in its decision on Wednesday.
The CRTC statement added that the regulator is “concerned with programming from a foreign country that seeks to undermine the sovereignty of another country, demean Canadians of a particular ethnic background and undermine democratic institutions within Canada.”
The decision came after an expedited hearing into whether the English-language channel and its French service, RT France, should be allowed on Canadian TV screens, following Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine.
The channel, formerly known as Russia Today, has for years been recognized as part of the propaganda efforts of President Vladimir Putin’s regime. In recent weeks, its programming has mirrored Russian talking points, such as referring to the bombardment of Ukrainian cities as a “special military operation” rather than an invasion.
On Feb. 27, Canada’s largest television providers – including BCE Inc., Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp. and Shaw Communications Inc. – said they would pull RT from their channel lineups. The next day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would ask the CRTC to review whether RT should be removed from the list of non-Canadian channels authorized for distribution in this country.
“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.
RT has sought to reach the widest possible audience in Canada by forgoing the usual business model – in which TV providers pay to carry a channel – and instead providing its signal for free. In the past, the channel has even paid some major providers to make sure the channel was included in their TV packages, The Globe and Mail reported in 2017. Those Canadian companies are not required to publicly disclose the terms of such agreements.
As part of the hearing, the CRTC received 373 submissions from organizations and individual Canadians. Of those, 350 argued the regulator should ban the channel, while some others argued this would constitute censorship.
The regulator has said in the past that it would be “predisposed” to approve non-Canadian news channels for distribution in Canada, in order to provide choice and diversity within the system – as long as those channels do not violate rules such as those prohibiting “abusive comment” under Canada’s Broadcasting Act.
But the CRTC signalled at the beginning of the process it might consider banning RT, writing a preliminary view that it may violate those provisions on abusive comment, and “does not serve the public interest.”
In its announcement of the decision, the CRTC noted that some submissions applied more broadly to Russian state-controlled and sponsored media, but specified that the scope of this hearing was limited to RT and RT France. Russia’s Channel One and RTR-Planeta are also on the list of non-Canadian stations authorized for distribution.
RT’s distributor in Canada, Markham, Ont.-based Ethnic Channels Group Ltd., “will gladly abide by” the CRTC’s decision, chief executive officer Slava Levin said in an interview on Wednesday. However, Mr. Levin objected to the TV providers removing the channel without providing notice.
“They should have waited for the process. It set a very bad precedent,” Mr. Levin said. “The [TV providers] jumped the gun, and this could create a very slippery slope for us with respect to future channels being shut down at will without any CRTC oversight.”
Asked whether he would have been comfortable continuing to distribute the channel had the CRTC decided differently, Mr. Levin said he would not. But he added that he continues to distribute channels that air content he does not agree with.
“I cannot be the gatekeeper of channels; otherwise I should not be in business,” he said.
Also on Wednesday, Canada’s Heritage Minister, Pablo Rodriguez, called for proposals to help combat misinformation and disinformation online, announcing $2.5-million in funding over four years toward such efforts.
In a statement, Mr. Rodriguez thanked the CRTC for its quick review of RT.
“Our system works, independently and according to due process and the law,’ he wrote. “This limits Putin’s ability to justify his invasion of Ukraine, spread hate and division, and destabilize our democracy.”
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