As reported earlier, in a somewhat stunning announcement that puts into question the freedom of speech and press in the UK democracy, RT's editor in chief alleged, and NatWest later confirmed, that the Russian media outlet's bank accounts in the UK had been blocked by the bank owned by the previously nationalized RBS.
In a letter to RT's London Office, NatWest said, “we have recently undertaken a review of your banking arrangements with us and reached the conclusion that we will no longer provide these facilities." The bank added that the entire Royal Bank of Scotland Group, of which NatWest is part of, would refuse to service RT.
“We have no idea why it happened, because neither yesterday nor the day before yesterday, nor a month ago, nothing special happened to us, nobody threatened us in any way. Hypothetically, this may have something to do with new British and American sanctions against Russia, which may be announced soon. It may not. Our legal department is dealing with the issue now,” Margarita Simonyan told RBK business news website.
Commenting on the development, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said it indicated that “Britain on its way out of the EU abandoned all its commitments to protect the freedom of speech.” “I sincerely hope that there’s no political motive for this, because we know that the British government isn’t happy with RT in Britain,” publisher Marcus Papadopoulos told RT.
The bank’s move concerning RT UK is unprecedented, cynical pressure on the media, Sergey Zheleznyak, member of the Russian Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee, said.
“We will demand explanations from the British authorities for this situation. We will help RT staff to protect their rights. We will request that international organizations like the Council of Europe and the UN, as well as international human rights and media professionals communities state their positions on this issue,” he said.
So, to address the allegations of censorship coming from the highest possible level, moments ago UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who is currently scrambling to reach a "Hard Brexit" deal that does not implode sterling and lead to a surge in gilt yields, said that the decision by NatWest to withdraw banking services in Britain from state-funded Russian broadcaster RT is a matter for the bank, her spokeswoman said on Monday.
"It's a matter for the bank and it's for them to decide who they offer services to based on their own risk appetite," May's spokeswoman told reporters cited by Reuters. In other words, Chinese money-laundering billionaires buying overpriced, bubbly London apartments are fine, but Russian media outlets, well, they are just too risky, sorry.
There was no mention that RBS, and thus NatWest, are both technically wards of the state (earlier today the FT reported that the "UK would write down value of RBS stake for second time in 6 months"), and that any decision they make, especially one with such wide-raning political implications, has certainly had the preclearance of the government.
Which means that what happened today was just the latest trial balloon aimed at the Kremlin to see how Putin will respond to the attempted "blockage" of one of Russia's key offshore media outlets. We are confident Putin will have a prompt response.