UK bank freezes Russian state-channel RT’s accounts

RT posts letter from NatWest announcing withdrawal of services by December, calling it an attack on freedom of speech.

Reuters RT studio putin
The British government is the majority shareholder in the Royal Bank of Scotland group, which owns Natwest [Reuters]

A British bank has withdrawn banking services from Russia’s state-owned news channel RT, drawing condemnation from Moscow.

The decision by NatWest, which is due to come into force in December, was announced on Monday morning by the news outlet’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan on her Twitter page.

“Our accounts in Britain have been blocked. All of them. ‘Decision not to be discussed’. Hail to freedom of speech!” Simonyan said in a tweet posted in Russian.

A statement published on RT’s website included a copy of the letter from NatWest announcing the closure.

In the letter, the bank says the decision to close the account was final and it “was not prepared to enter into any discussion in relation to it”.

However, in a press statement issued on Monday, NatWest said it was “reviewing the situation” and would be in contact with RT.

“These decisions are not taken lightly,” the bank said.

“We are reviewing the situation and are contacting the customer to discuss this further. The bank accounts remain open and are still operative.”

The UK Treasury Office said it would not comment on the issue but sources confirmed that there were no new obligations put on British banks in their dealings with Russia since February 2015.

The British government is the majority shareholder in the Royal Bank of Scotland group, which owns Natwest.

On her Facebook page, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, accused the UK of abandoning its commitment to free expression.

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“Looks like leaving the EU, London left in Europe all of its obligations under the freedom of speech.” Zakharova wrote.

While there was no evidence of British government involvement, the decision could result in reciprocal measures by Russian institutions against UK outlets, according to Paul Goode, a senior lecturer in Russian politics at Bath University.

“The Russian press is framing the move by NatWest as the beginning of a new round of western sanctions despite the Treasury’s denial,” Goode said.

“It’s possible that there could be some pressure applied to BBC Moscow in retaliation, but the rationale and benefit are unclear aside from their PR value in domestic politics.

“Most Russians do not distinguish between western sanctions and Putin’s own ‘counter-sanctions’, and they are unlikely to question the state media’s interpretation of this particular move.”

The bank’s move comes a week after British MPs met to discuss Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo, with many calling for a new set of sanctions on the country.

The British foreign secretary also discussed the possibility of new sanctions on Moscow during a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday.

No new measures have been announced, but the EU and US continue to enforce sanctions against Russia for its involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine.

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Source: Al Jazeera