The Kremlin's international TV news outlet RT has cried foul over a decision by French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron to ban it, along with affiliated radio outlet Sputnik, from his campaign headquarters.
Campaign staff for Macron told media outlets that RT and Sputnik spread "fake news" and seek to undermine the independent candidate's campaign.
Former banker Macron is a pro-European centrist widely tipped to win the French presidency Sunday in a runoff by beating far-right leader Marine Le Pen, head of the Front National (FN).
RT has challenged Macron to identify news stories from it that are not fact-based. State-funded RT and Ruptly have been denied accreditation with the Macron campaign along with radio service Sputnik, which is part of another Russian government media group Rossiya Segodnya.
Anna Belkina, a spokeswoman for RT, told The Hollywood Reporter that the closed-door policy, which shuts its reporters out of Macron's campaign headquarters press briefings, was "the latest continuation of a story that started a couple of months ago with this constant invocation of fake news accusations against RT from the Macron's campaign." She added: "We have never spread fake news or anything of that sort or run any kind of campaign against Mr. Macron."
Macron's campaign was "making very serious claims and accusations" that they had not substantiated, said Belkina. "They have to substantiate it; you cannot just label something you disagree with fake news."
When reporters from international news agency Reuters asked Macron for examples of fake news stories by RT, campaign managers failed to identify any.
But a Macron spokesman told Reuters that both RT and Sputnik exhibited a "systematic desire to issue fake news andinformation." He added: "Spreading lies methodically and systematically - that's a problem. If this creates problems with the Kremlin, it will be the subject of an open discussion in the event of [Macron] being elected."
The spokesman did not identify any example of fake news stories, said Reuters, though the news agency pointed to a Feb. 4 report by Sputnik "quoting a pro-Putin center-right French legislator as saying Macron was a puppet of U.S. political and financial elites and that revelations about his private life would soon be made public."
That report seems to have played a part in Macron being forced, days later, to deny rumors of an extra-marital gay relationship, according to the news agency.
Belkina agreed that "RT does have a strong editorial voice," but insisted the news service had "never been anti-Macron. We are not in the business of picking sides politically whether it is the French election or any other political process."
Xenia Fedorova, France bureau chief for RT, told THR: "Since the beginning of the campaign our journalists have experienced unfair treatment from Macron's team [due to] absolutely baseless accusations of 'fake news' in relation to our election coverage. We think it's a selective approach and goes against the rights of journalists to have access to information."
She added that RT's France coverage was provide by largely French journalists "many with years and years of experience" and that accusations of fake news could be "immediately debunked with simple research of our website." Belinka also insisted that RT France was "providing balanced coverage; all of the reporting on every candidate is fact based."
However, while not anti-Macron, headlines on RT France do highlight a positive slant towards the Front National.
A headline Monday about defeated leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon's TV interview was framed as critical of Macron, whereas other French news sources highlighted that Melenchon said a vote for FN would be a "terrible mistake." The two subsequently appeared at a ceremony Monday morning to honor a Moroccan man who was killed May 1, 1995, by FN supporters, but that event was not mentioned on the RT site.
RT also framed anti-Le Pen marches as "scattered" and weaker than anti-FN protests in 2002, whereas French papers highlighted the numbers and the many organizations calling for votes against her.
The Macron campaign had no immediate response to THR's request for comment.