For years, the state-funded Russian TV channel RT had broadcast its slickly produced English-language news programs over the airwaves in the Washington area.
But in early February, the network was taken off the air by a northern Virginia TV station. RT had remained on area cable channels until midnight Sunday when the station permanently closed.
RT blames the loss of the broadcasts on the network having to register as a foreign agent with the Justice Department in November — something that many media outlets with substantial backing from a foreign government have been required to do.
“Although we are not at liberty to disclose the details, we know that this decision was linked to RT’s forced registration as a ‘foreign agent’ in the U.S.,” Anna Belkina, RT’s deputy editor-in-chief, told The Associated Press in an email last week.
But the television station and the owner of the frequency on which RT was broadcast cite business decisions — not the U.S. government.
The station, WNVC in Fairfax, shut down because the frequency on which it was broadcast had been sold. Sunday’s closure pulled the plug on about a dozen digital broadcast channels that offered international programming.
The channels were also transmitted by the region’s cable providers. And despite going off the air in February, RT had remained on cable — where the vast majority of its television viewers were — until the station’s demise.
WNVC was owned by MHz Networks. President Frederick Thomas said last week that the owner of the broadcast signal had asked MHz Networks to remove RT from the air on Feb. 1.
“I was never given a solid answer why,” Thomas said. “They just exercised their right.”
Frequency owner Commonwealth Public Broadcasting Corporation did not specifically address why RT went off the air in February but remained on cable until Sunday.
Curtis Monk, Commonwealth’s president, wrote in an email last week that it had been planning the “surrender of the spectrum for some time.”
“We’ve simply been following our plan.”
Ian D. Prior, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment on RT’s claims that its status as a foreign agent played a role.
Many consider RT to be a propaganda arm of the Russian government. The loss of its Washington-area broadcast has become the latest chapter in an ongoing feud between the network and the U.S. government.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act applies to companies that disseminate information on behalf of foreign governments. The law does not restrict RT’s content. But RT is required to publicly disclose details about its funding and to label certain content that is distributed in the U.S.
RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan told the AP in January that it is a legitimate news organization, comparable to Britain’s government-supported BBC or the U.S.-funded Voice of America.
But Robert Orttung, an international affairs professor at George Washington University, said the network is a propaganda arm of the Russian government designed to make its benefactor look good.
Reporter Ben Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia. Jim Heintz reported from Moscow.