The U.K. bank accounts of Russia Today (RT), an international TV network funded by the Russian government, have been blocked in a move that could threaten its future in the country.
Margarita Simonyan, who heads up the channel that has been dubbed an arm of the Kremlin's international "information warfare" strategy, said Monday that all of RT's accounts in Britain have been blocked. "All of them. 'Decision not to be discussed'!" Simonyan wrote in Russian on Twitter, adding: "Hail to freedom of speech!"
No reason was given for the move by the National Westminster Bank (NatWest), which is part of the Royal Bank of Scotland, a financial group in which the U.K. government holds a major stake.
RT published a photo of the letter that its London office had received from NatWest, stating: "We have recently undertaken a review of your banking arrangements with us and reached the conclusion that we will no longer provide these facilities. … Our decision is final and we are not prepared to enter into any discussion in relation to it."
The letter tells RT that it must pay any debt on its "card facility" by Nov. 14 and that its accounts will be closed on Dec. 12 with any remaining funds returned.
Simoyan's suggestion that the move was a blow to freedom of speech was echoed by Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who said in a Russian-language comment on her Facebook page: "It looks like, as it leaves the EU, London has left behind all its obligations toward freedom of speech. Starting a new life without bad habits, as the saying goes."
The channel has vowed it won't close down. "This decision is incomprehensible and without warning," RT said in a statement. "It is, however, not at odds with the countless measures that have been undertaken in the U.K. and Europe over the last few years to ostracize, shout down, or downright impede the work of RT. RT U.K. will continue its operations uninterrupted."
British newspaper The Guardian reported Monday that "it was unclear whether the British government was behind the move" to close down RT's bank accounts, "but the foreign office was aware of the news when contacted … and referred inquiries to the Treasury."
Fears have now been raised that the Kremlin may retaliate by expelling journalists from the BBC's Moscow bureau. David Clarke, a former advisor to the British foreign office and chair of London-based independent think tank the Russia Foundation, said: "The BBC is the flagship British broadcaster. It's a public body, but in the Russian mind it's an arm of the state and they will see it as a proxy. They will look at kicking British journalists out of Russia."
It's not the first time RT has hit the headlines in the U.K. Two years ago one of its London-based hosts resigned over what she said was slanted coverage of the downing of Malaysian Airways Flight MH17 over Ukraine.