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Why Deutsche Welle is not the same as RT

Matthias von Hein
February 4, 2022

Russia has revoked Deutsche Welle's broadcast license and shut down DW's office in Moscow, after German regulators banned Russian broadcaster RT Deutsch. But the two broadcasters are not the same.

DW und RT Symbolbild
DW is governed by the principle of state neutrality and overseen by an independent councilImage: Andre M. Chang/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

The Kremlin's decision to shut down DW's operations in Russia seems at first like a tit-for-tat response to the one by German regulators, made a day earlier, to ban Russian broadcaster RT Deutsch from broadcasting in Germany.

But there are significant differences both in the nature of the bans and in the regulations that govern the two foreign broadcasters themselves.

For the former, only RT's live content has been stopped by the German regulator, following its decision not to apply for a broadcast licence. On-demand and online content is unaffected, while RT's correspondents continue to be free to work in Berlin and attend government press conferences. Russia's decision to shut down DW's bureau in Moscow means DW journalists are no longer accredited to work in Russia.

The second point, about how the two broadcasters are governed, can best be summed up in the principle of "state neutrality." 

After the experience of the Nazi dictatorship, the German media landscape was designed specifically to prevent those in power from controlling newspapers, broadcasting, and online media. 

It is true that both Deutsche Welle and RT, once called Russia Today, are state-funded broadcasters aimed at foreign audiences. But to ensure that Deutsche Welle is allowed work independently and follow journalistic standards, it is not a part of the federal government's press office.

Peter Limbourg on DW ban in Russia

A system of public accountability

Instead, DW is regulated by public law. This means that though its funding comes from the federal budget, the director is accountable only to the DW Broadcasting Council, which also elects him for six years. And even if there is a change of government in Germany, as was the case recently, the director remains in office.

The Broadcasting Council has 17 honorary members: Representatives of civil society, trade unions, churches, and political parties. They see to it that Germany's foreign broadcasting follows DW's mandate, which is "to provide a forum for German and other points of view on essential topics, above all in politics, culture and economics, both in Europe and in other continents, with the aim of promoting understanding and exchange between cultures and peoples."

It is true that RT's English website also states: "RT is an autonomous, non-profit organization that is publicly funded from the budget of the Russian Federation." But the website does not reveal much more about RT: Not about its budget, not about its structure, not about any supervisory bodies.

Russia bans DW in retaliatory move

Independent of government

What seems clear is that there is no principle of state neutrality governing RT, as is required for DW. When Time magazine's Moscow correspondent Simon Shuster visited RT Editor-in-Chief Margareta Simonyan in her office in 2015, he noticed an old-fashioned yellow telephone on her desk. It was her secure line directly to the Kremlin, Simonyan admitted to Shuster, "to discuss secret things." She has been RT's editor-in-chief since its inception in 2005.

In an interview with Russian daily Kommersant in 2012, Simonyan said she saw RT as part of an information war with the Western world, and compared the broadcaster's role to that of the Defense Ministry.

"The Defense Ministry was fighting with Georgia, but we were conducting the information war, and what's more, against the whole Western world," she said. "It's impossible to start making a weapon only when the war has already started! That's why the Defense Ministry isn't fighting anyone at the moment, but it's ready for defense. So are we."

'An instrument of Russian foreign policy'

In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that RT "cannot but reflect the official position of the Russian government on events in our country and the rest of the world." Speaking to broadcaster SWR, Stefan Meister, Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, described RT as a propaganda channel: "It is an instrument of Russian foreign policy with very specific goals. It is a channel controlled by the Foreign Ministry, among others, but also by other state institutions."

There are also differences in the way the foreign media are handled within the country. This is illustrated by the broadcasting ban imposed on RT in Germany by an independent media supervisory authority, the Commission for Licensing and Supervision of the Berlin-Brandenburg Media Authority, which is not a government agency.

The commission justified its broadcasting ban on RT DE by stating that the "required media law license is missing." In other words, the broadcast license had never been applied for, though broadcasting began last December — perhaps because of the state neutrality requirement. Germany's Media Treaty, which regulates the rights of broadcasters in Germany, prohibits — except in exceptional cases — the granting of broadcasting licenses to state bodies in Germany and abroad.

However, RT's parent organization TV Novosti holds a broadcasting license for RT DE in Serbia and considers it sufficient. The German media supervisory authority disagrees, and considers itself responsible because RT's German broadcaster has its headquarters in Berlin.

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While DW journalists have now had their accreditations revoked, RT journalists can continue to work in Germany, protected by the principle of press freedom. RT journalists, for example, still regularly sit in on press conferences held by the German government. RT DE can continue to operate its website and can distribute videos — but not stream them live.

In Russia, foreign correspondents must obtain accreditation via an often opaque approval process. In Germany, RT DE can hire journalists and reporters without accreditation, like any other broadcaster.

Meanwhile, the closure of DW's Moscow bureau and the end of DW's broadcasting in Russia was announced by the Russian Foreign Ministry — clearly an indication that the move was politically motivated. Russia said it was reacting to the "unfriendly actions of the Federal Republic of Germany" towards RT DE. 

Meanwhile, Russia ranks 150th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

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