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DW ban in Russia: How it happened

Roman Goncharenko
February 4, 2022

In an unprecedented act of retaliation, Moscow has banned DW from broadcasting in Russia. It's a response to Germany blocking Russian state broadcaster RT — but there were warning signs long before that.

DW Moscow studio
No longer on air: The DW Moscow studioImage: DW

It didn't come as a surprise. There had been many warning signs long before the Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday effectively banned DW in the country.

"We are preparing a response to the Germans. I hope that this time there will actually be one," Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russian state broadcaster RT, wrote back on December 22 on Facebook. Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry replied with one sentence: "Of course."

Broadcasting without license

The context at the time: Satellite operator Eutelsat had stopped carrying RT's German language TV broadcast, RT DE. The channel had only been on air since December 16, broadcasting via satellite and online. But because RT DE didn't have a broadcasting license, German regulators set out to block RT's operations. 

Just how important RT DE is for Russia became clear when German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visited Moscow last month. The Russian side made it clear that there would be retaliation against German media if no solution was found for RT DE's situation.

Logos of DW and RT
DW's ban happened in retaliation for RT DE being taken off the airImage: Andre M. Chang/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

When, on February 2, German regulators finally banned the TV transmission of RT DE in Germany, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced a formal response the following day: DW was required to close its bureau in Russia and the journalists working for DW would lose their accreditation.

In addition to this, going forward DW broadcasts will be banned in Russia, and the German media organization will be named a "foreign agent" which will make any work in Russia a lot more difficult. The word in Moscow is that further measures against DW could follow.

Plans to expand in Germany

Moscow's retaliation against DW goes  far beyond the measures that Germany implemented against RT DE. Unlike the DW correspondents who lost their accreditation in Russia, RT journalists are still allowed to do their job in Germany. Also, DW does have an official broadcast license in Russia both for its English and its German language channels.

The German Federation of Journalists (DJV) has criticized Moscow's reaction as disproportionate. While DW is financed by the German state, its supervisory board is largely made up of non-governmental groups. RT DE, however, was "part of government-controlled Russian propaganda," the DJV said.

RT's German-language channel launched in 2014, the year that Russia annexed Crimea. The initial broadcast was only available online and the station saw itself as an alternative to Germany's traditional media.

Currently, RT DE has more than 650,000 subscribers on Facebook. Before it was banned in September 2021, the YouTube channel had a similar number of subscribers.

That YouTube ban also affected "The Missing Part," one of RT DE's flagship programs. The reason for the ban was accusations by YouTube parent company Google of RT DE spreading misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

At the time, the German government dismissed allegations that it was linked to the YouTube ban and rejected all criticism coming from Moscow.

RT DE had tried and failed to get a broadcasting license for Germany via Luxembourg. Eventually, a license was obtained in Serbia but German regulators were not willing to accept it. The Russian broadcaster has said it will go to court over the issue.

Russian threats against DW

Germany's DW had been able to broadcast in Russia without any interference since the end of the 1980s and there had been no criticism from Moscow.

The first signs of trouble came in the fall of 2019. A commission by the Russian parliament was set up to look into what was called "interference by foreign media" into internal Russian affairs. That criticism was also leveled against DW.

DW logo in Russia
DW first came into the Kremlin's crosshairs in 2019Image: DW

Among the alleged violations raised by the commission was a Russian-language tweet by DW in summer 2019 covering the opposition protests ahead of parliamentary elections.

The tweet cited a slogan from the protesters – "Moscow, come out!" but the commission saw this as call by DW for Muscovites to join the protests. DW has rejected this accusation.

At the time, the commission recommended classifying DW as a "foreign agent." This recommendation was however not adopted by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Following the incident, DW Director General Peter Limbourg travelled to Moscow for talks and the conflict appeared to have been resolved. Yet in September 2021 the issue was back on the table, this time because of the banning of RT DE by YouTube.

Russia had valid reasons for retaliatory measures, the head of the commission, Vasily Piskaryov said. The worse the outlook for RT DE's future in Germany became, the clearer the threats from Moscow got. Head of RT, Margarita Simonyan, repeatedly asked the Foreign Ministry to opt for a harsh response.

DW Director General Limbourg said the actions against DW were a "complete overreaction" and announced legal steps. He also promised that DW would now "significantly" strengthen its reporting on Russia.

Peter Limbourg on DW ban in Russia

This article has been translated from German.