By Mathieu Rosemain and Gwénaëlle Barzic
PARIS (Reuters) – The Kremlin-funded Russian broadcaster RT was due to launch its French language news channel on Monday night amid heavy suspicion by the government and President Emmanuel Macron who has dubbed it “an organ of propaganda”.
Macron has led official criticism of RT, formerly known as “Russia Today”, and openly accused it of sowing disinformation about him via its website and social media during the presidential election earlier this year which he won.
RT has denied the allegations and RT France’s chief executive Xenia Fedorova, speaking at the channel’s new offices in a western Paris suburb, again brushed off criticism, saying that RT stood for news “not covered by mainstream media”.
The channel was being cold-shouldered by Macron and the channel had still not been granted accreditation to cover news conferences inside the French presidential Elysee palace, Fedorova said on Monday a few hours before the channel was due to start broadcasting.
“There was just one example of when we actually managed to visit. That was actually during the Trump visit to Paris,” she added, referring to the visit by the U.S. president last in July.
A spokesman for the French government said last week that the current administration was concerned by encroachment on freedom of expression but highlighted that RT was owned by a foreign power.
Fedorova brushed off the remarks, citing other well-known international news channels that receive public funding such as BBC World, France 24 or Al Jazeera.
“RT stands for news that are not covered by the mainstream media,” she said.
“We will keep the platform (open) to perspectives and opinions that are either not covered or silenced.”
RT France has planned a budget of 20 million euros (£17.9 million) for its launch and aims to recruit a total of 150 people by the end next year.
By comparison, BFM TV, France’s number one news channel, started with 15 million euros and now has an annual budget of about 60 million euros.
RT’s first international channel was launched in December 2005. The network broadcasts in English, Arabic and Spanish and its programs are viewed by 70 million people in 38 countries, it says.
The landscape for news channels is already crowded in France, with four round-the-clock local news channels. Unlike its rivals, RT will not reach all French households via the digital terrestrial television technology.
Rather, it can be viewed only online or by subscribers of Iliad’s broadband services. Bouygues Telecom is also due to distribute RT France from the end of next February.
The two biggest French telecom operators, Orange and Altice’s SFR Group, are still in discussions with RT France, the firms said, underscoring the low audience level that RT is likely to have in its first few days.
Russia’s international news outlets have come under the spotlight since 2016 after being accused of meddling in the U.S. presidential election.
Russia has denied interfering in the election.
In October, Twitter accused RT and Russian news agency Sputnik of interfering in the 2016 U.S. election and banned them from buying ads on its network.
(Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey; Editing by Richard Balmforth)