Russia's RT channel eyes African expansion with SA headquarters

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Inside an RT studio in Moscow, Russia.  (Photo: Misha Friedman/Getty Images)
Inside an RT studio in Moscow, Russia. (Photo: Misha Friedman/Getty Images)
  • Russian state-controlled international news television network, RT, is set to open a base in South Africa.
  • RT has been banned in several countries across the globe following Russia's unprovoked invasion of the Ukraine.
  • The SA bureau is set to be headed by Paula Slier.

Russia's RT channel has embarked on expansion plans in Africa, starting to set up headquarters on the continent in South Africa where the Kremlin-funded TV channel is carried and supported by China.

Paula Slier, the South African TV reporter who previously worked for SABC News and who was posted in Jerusalem, Israel, as RT's correspondent for that region, is now overseeing the set-up of RT's African headquarters in South Africa and will be managing the bureau.

On Monday an RT spokesperson told News24; "We are indeed currently focused on developing our English-language Africa hub in South Africa, headed up by Paula Slier – a South Africa native, RT's longtime correspondent and formerly head of RT's Jerusalem bureau". 

"We will be releasing more updates about the particulars of this operation at the appropriate time," RT said. 

According to an insider, the RT South African newsroom is currently being set up although it's still unclear how many South African staff, camera operators and reporters RT plans to hire as it takes a page from the playbook of what other global TV news channels like CNN International, Al Jazeera, BBC World News and China's pro-Beijing CGTN have done in Africa. 

The African expansion of Russia's state-backed TV channel comes amid Russia's unprovoked invasion and ongoing war in Ukraine and widespread global condemnation of the pro-Russia and anti-Ukraine misinformation and propaganda on the channel over the past few months. 

RT banned by EU

Earlier this year RT was banned by the European Union (EU), as well as in Canada and in the United Kingdom by Britain's broadcasting regulator Ofcom. 

Imposed EU sanctions also meant that RT abruptly went dark in South Africa and across sub-Saharan Africa on 2 March. This was the date when Luxembourg-based companies like Intelsat and SES SA flipped the kill-switch on the satellite uplinking of RT's channel feed to their satellite transponders like Intelsat's IS-20 on which a pay-TV operator like the Randburg-based MultiChoice leases bandwidth to bring the channel to DStv subscribers.  

Google and other companies also blocked the propaganda channel's YouTube streaming. 

Two-and-a-half months later, RT surprisingly flickered back on South African TV screens on 11 May – this time thanks to Chinese support. 

The MultiChoice pay-TV rival, StarTimes Media – running the StarSat pay-TV service in South Africa and StarTimes elsewhere in Africa – added RT to its TV channels line-up in mid-May, using SES S.A.'s SES-5 satellite transponder on which StarTimes/StarSat is leasing space.

SES S.A. is a satellite and terrestrial telecommunications network provider also based in Luxembourg in Europe. SES S.A. told News24 that it "engaged with European regulatory bodies to suspend the distribution of specific Russia Today channels and Sputnik across Europe" and had turned off the designated signals on 2 March. 

"While the channel in question – Russia Today Global – is being delivered via SES-5 (a satellite that SES owns) over sub-Saharan Africa, it is our customer who has leased our bandwidth and is distributing the channel over the leased capacity." 

"SES also notes that this channel is not one that has been banned by the European Union." 

"We have been engaging with our customers and regulatory authorities to assess both what we can do and must do under the various legal regimes to which we are subject. SES is prepared to take immediate action and implement any instructions we receive from regulatory authorities,” the company said. 

StarTimes told News24 in May that as a pay-TV service it "takes pride in sourcing relevant and current content to enhance our packages, thus we regard RT Global as a 24-hour English-language news channel that focuses on all major economic, political and social issues of our time".

Move from Kenya to SA 

While RT's original plan was to get a localised foothold on the African continent by establishing its African bureau in Nairobi, Kenya where the African headquarters of China's CGTN has also been set up and based for the past few years, RT has now switched from the East African country to South Africa where it won't be directly competing with CGTN for newsroom resources. 

It's unclear if RT's move away from Kenya to South Africa to set up its first localised African hub is possibly a tit-for-tat move to get out of CGTN's way, after StarTimes' decision to sign a channel carriage agreement to showcase RT on channel 260 of the Chinese pay-TV platform. 

In February RT still posted adverts for journalist positions who would have had to work and be based in Nairobi.    

The RT spokesperson didn't comment on the African location change, how many South African staff RT plans to hire, or why RT is interested in creating a regional headquarter in Africa.

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