RT moves its pawns in Africa, opening a bureau in Algeria
In Algeria, where foreign reporters are able to keep working only as long as the government tolerates them, the Russian propaganda TV channel RT, the former Russia Today, has just opened a bureau in Algiers. This reflects a strange view of pluralism on Algeria’s part and a new deployment strategy by the RT network, which Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has investigated.
Since 18 March, the Algerian journalist Yasmine Moussous has been identifying herself on her Twitter account as the head of the first Algeria bureau of RT, the Kremlin-financed international TV news channel. A well-known TV presenter, Moussous worked in the past for Sky News Arabia and for RT’s Moscow-based, Arabic-language version, RT Arabic, for which she covered Algerian stories and, in 2020, interviewed Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. After a short spell with Al Arabiya, Moussous posted a mysterious message on Twitter in October 2022, announcing a new project and an imminent return to Algeria.
The creation of an RT bureau in Algeria is now a reality. “Yasmine Moussous already has official accreditation, and an accreditation request for a second journalist has been submitted in order to reinforce the bureau,” a local source told RSF.
So far, the bureau has mainly covered the visit to Algiers of Russian Security Council secretary Nicholai Patrushev in February, and then the 16 March visit of Russian Federation Council president Valentina Matvienko. Aside from two-ways during these visits, the bureau has so far produced no local report for either RT France or RT Arabic. When contacted by RSF, Moussous regretted not being able to answer our questions and invited us “to contact the channel’s management in Moscow.”
Algiers prefers politically controlled media
The treatment RT is getting in Algeria contrasts with that reserved for other international media. Two Algerian citizens (a reporter and a producer) who used to work for France 24 in Algiers were acquitted on 22 March on a charge of “publication liable to endanger the national interest” but were fined for receiving payments from foreign media. Accused of “manifest and repeated hostility” towards Algeria and “its institutions,” France 24 has been deprived of accreditation since June 2021 and is banned from working in Algeria. When the Algerian authorities don’t like foreign media outlets or journalists, they expel them, as they did in April 2019 with then AFP Algiers bureau chief Aymeric Vincenot.
A relatively small number of foreign media are still allowed to operate in Algeria but the authorities don’t provide a list or explain their selection criteria. The communication ministry is unreachable. Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, Al Hurra, Deutsche Welle, the Associated Press, Reuters and AFP are among those that are duly authorised and accredited in Algiers, as well as RT. But in order to keep working, foreign media outlets are at the mercy of the government. This is “a complicated situation that is becoming untenable", a journalist with one of them told RSF on condition of anonymity.
In Algeria, the authorities use their discretion to grant or withhold accreditation to pressure foreign journalists. Individual accreditation is valid for only one year and can be revoked at any time if the ministry so decides. The arbitrary nature of accreditation decisions is compounded by a very political and discriminatory view of reporting freedom. “It is common in Algeria for accredited foreign journalists to be prevented from working or to be arrested by the police, while others who are not accredited but are ‘tolerated’ are invited by the authorities to cover important events,” an Algerian journalist told RSF.
Such constraints are clearly not imposed on RT, whose editorial policies are aligned with the foreign policy and interests, both economic and diplomatic, of Russia, a long-time ally and trading partner of Algeria. The two countries have shown many signs of drawing closer since the start of 2023. Their military cooperation has been strengthened and Moscow has publicly supported Algiers’ membership of the BRICS, the alliance of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Vladimir Putin will receive President Tebboune in Moscow for a state visit in May
RT grows new tentacles after European sanctions
Aside from the strategic links between the two countries, RT’s arrival in Algeria follows the imposition of sanctions on the other side of the Mediterranean. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union banned RT and Sputnik from broadcasting their content within the EU in March 2022. European Internet service providers blocked their websites but RT and Sputnik quickly circumvented this by creating mirror sites which Internet users can access without even needing to install a VPN (virtual private network). Nonetheless, the sanctions paved the way for a redeployment of RT's international network.
Since March 2022, RT headquarters in Moscow has had its eyes fixed on Africa, where it is planning a long-term presence. So too, it seems, is the Kremlin, which is already extending its influence in many of the continent’s countries thanks, in particular, to Wagner, the paramilitary group whose mercenaries have been deployed in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Mali. RT is currently prospecting in Kenya – a recruitment campaign was launched there in February 2022 – and in South Africa, with a view to establishing an English-speaking hub for Africa there.
RT’s search for partners for a French-language bureau in Africa is also moving ahead. Already available in the Maghreb, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cameroon, RT is seeking to extend to Mali, where it reached out to the MaliaActu news website in March 2022 with a view to establishing a strategic partnership. And RT recruited a correspondent in Tunisia in December 2022.
Maxime Audinet, the author of the book Russia Today (RT) - An influence media in the Russian state’s service, told RSF: “There’s a way to approach expansion in Africa. RT's French-speaking audience in the Maghreb is very strong, and setting up a French-speaking bureau in Africa would be easier in Algiers or Tunis than in Bangui or Bamako (…) RT could also adopt the same model as Sputnik, which is setting up correspondents in many countries in order to better connect the terrain.”
Sputnik, the fully Russian state-funded international multimedia news agency, is not lagging behind. In July 2022, shortly after its bureau in France was placed in compulsory liquidation, Sputnik launched the French-language platform Sputnik Afrique, which now offers extensive coverage of African news, from both the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Sputnik has also based two correspondents in Algeria, where they are currently working without accreditation.
While looking south, RT has not abandoned its European activities. On 15 November, RT launched a new Serbo-Croatian language site called RT Balkan. At the same time, it announced that a TV channel would see the light of day in 2024. Although placed in compulsory liquidation, the RT France bureau is still producing content in France and its newsroom and TV studio, based in the wealthy Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, are still active. RT France’s TV programmes can be accessed with a VPN outside the EU.
The methods and timetable of the RT network’s redeployment are still unclear. A former RT France journalist who asked not to be identified told RSF: “Everything is centralised and decided in Moscow. There is a redeployment strategy but nobody knows anything internally. When RT launched its recruitment campaign in Kenya, Xenia Fedorova [a Russian national who is news director at RT France] even seemed unaware of it.” The plans of the Muscovite strategists are nonetheless increasingly easy to read.