U.S. needn’t fear Russia, RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan says

MOSCOW — The boss of a Kremlin-funded news organization accused of playing a role in Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election says she hopes the deep rift between Moscow and Washington can be mended.

Margarita Simonyan has been editor-in-chief of RT — formerly known as Russia Today — for more than a decade.

But until recently, few had heard of her outside Russia.

Then her name was mentioned 27 times in a report by U.S. intelligence agencies that was published in January. It described RT as the “Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet" and said it "served as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences."

It alleged that government-financed RT America sought to "influence politics [and] fuel discontent" in the U.S.

Forbes magazine ranked Simonyan as the 52nd most powerful woman in the world this year — 13 places ahead of Hillary Clinton.

“I am very saddened by what is going on right now between Russia and America,” the 37-year-old Simonyan told NBC News at the network's Moscow headquarters earlier this month.

See photos of Margarita Simonyan:

11 PHOTOS
RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan through the years
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RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan through the years
Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russian broadcaster RT, meets with journalists, with the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour seen in the background, in Moscow, Russia, October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
SOCHI, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 19, 2017: Rossiya Segodnya and RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan attends a plenary session titled 'The World of the Future: Moving Through Conflict to Cooperation' as part of the 14th annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi. Mikhail Metzel/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - NOVEMBER 29, 2017: Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief at Rossiya Segodnya nternational news agency and RT Channel, addresses a meeting of the Russian Federation Council. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - NOVEMBER 29, 2017: Margarita Simonyan (front), editor-in-chief at Rossiya Segodnya nternational news agency and RT Channel, addresses a meeting of the Russian Federation Council. Also pictured: Russian Federation Council Deputy Chairman Ilyas Umakhanov and Russian Federation Council Chairperson Valentina Matviyenko (L-R background). Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA JULY 4, 2017: Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russia Today (RT) television news network, speaks at a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping with representatives of public organisations, business, and media, at the Moscow Kremlin. Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev\TASS via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JULY 4: (RUSSIA OUT) Russia Today TV Company head Margarita Simonyan attends talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Grand Kremlin Palace on July 4, 2017 in Moscow, Russia. Chinese President Xi Jinping is on a two-day visit to Russia. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 7, 2016: Kremlin's First Deputy Chief of Staff Alexei Gromov, Rossiya Segodnya general director Dmitry Kiselev, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russia Today (RT) television news network and Rossiya Segodnya international news agency, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L-R) at the Rossiya Segodnya international news agency. Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev\TASS via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 7, 2016: Rossiya Segodnya general director Dmitry Kiselev, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russia Today (RT) television news network and Rossiya Segodnya international news agency, (L-R) at the Rossiya Segodnya international news agency. Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev\TASS via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 7, 2016: Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russia Today (RT) television news network and Rossiya Segodnya international news agency, Rossiya Segodnya general director Dmitry Kiselev, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L-R) at the Rossiya Segodnya international news agency. Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev\TASS via Getty Images)
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R) meets with Russian English-language TV channel 'Russia Today' journalist Margarita Simonyan in Sochi on August 26, 2008. Russia is not afraid of a new Cold War taking hold and is ready for 'anything,' Medvedev said on in a television interview. 'We're not afraid of anything (including) the prospect of a Cold War. Of course we don't need that.... Everything depends on the stance of our partners and the world community and our partners in the West,' Medvedev told the Russia Today channel in comments translated into English. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / KREMLIN POOL / VLADIMIR RODIONOV (Photo credit should read VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 10: Russia Today Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan attends a meeting with representatives at the 2014 Winters Olympics Mediacenter at the 2014 Winters Olympics February 10, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
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“I lived in America. I love America,” she added, referring to a year she spent as an exchange student in Bristol, New Hampshire, in 1995. “We are not Communists anymore. We have changed, but for some reason the establishment doesn’t recognize it and doesn’t give us a chance to show that we have changed. You don’t have to be afraid of us anymore.”

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman on Friday said the Kremlin views deteriorating relations with the U.S. as a major disappointment of 2017. Following allegations of meddling in the presidential election, the two countries have been exchanging tit-for-tat measures all year, ranging from restrictions on embassy staff to legislation targeting state-owned media.

RT America — the U.S. arm of the organization — was forced to register as a “foreign agent” in November, prompting a response from the Kremlin that called restrictions on Russian broadcasters in the United States an attack on free speech.

Russia retaliated earlier this month by designating Voice of America and Radio Free Europe as “foreign agents."

RT has never made a secret of being a Russian TV station, Simonyan said, likening it to the U.K.'s publicly funded BBC.

“I don’t understand why any country is given a chance to make its point of view seen and heard by the world, and Russia is not given that chance,” she said. "Russia is said to be propaganda for doing exactly that. We are no more propaganda than the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe is propaganda."

Simonyan, who covered the Second Chechen War and the 2004 Beslan hostage siege as a young reporter, took charge of RT when she was aged just 25.

The network has since been through a major transformation. Rebranded from Russia Today in 2009, it's now a global, round-the-clock news network with 2,450 employees around the world, seven TV channels, digital platforms in six languages and video news agency RUPTLY.

RT says 70 million people in 38 countries watch its channels every week, and its content has been viewed more than 5 billion times on its YouTube channels.

See photos of Vladimir Putin:
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14 PHOTOS
Vladimir Putin through the years
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Vladimir Putin through the years
P362575 05: A class photo with Vladimir Putin, (fourth row, second from left) dated 1966 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Laski Diffusion)
368975 01: (AMERICAS ONLY) FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, poses for a photograph in this file photo with his parents Maria and Vladimir Putin in1985 just before his departure to Germany. Putin was sworn in as Russia''s second democratically elected president May 7, 2000, pledging to restore Russia as a great power. (Photo by Laski Diffusion/Newsmakers)
ITAR-TASS: LENINGRAD, USSR. Vladimir Putin seen with his wife Lyudmila and daughter Maria. File photo from family archive was taken in spring 1985. (Photo ITAR-TASS) (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)
St, petersburg mayor anatoly sobchak and austrian chancellor's wife christine vranitzky during a ceremony to name 'austria square' in downtown st, petersburg, austria has pledged to restore the square, future president of russia, vladimir putin, looks on, far left, september 1992. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
President George Bush meets with President Vladimir Putin at the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. Bush was meeting with Putin to thank him for signing the UN resolution demanding disarmament of Iraq. (Photo by ?? Brooks Kraft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
KRASNODAR, RUSSIA: Russian acting President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to a boy (R) during his visit to the Children's regional clinic hospital in Krasnodar 11 February 2000. Putin arrived in Krasnodar for a two-day visit to take a part in the All Russia Conference on emergency measures to stabilise and develop the Russian agro-industrial complex. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) (Photo credit should read SERGEI CHIRIKOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Uzbek president islam karimov helping rf president vladimir putin put on a traditional robe, uzbekistan, december 1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura greet President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila outside of the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. Bush was meeting with Putin to thank him for signing the UN resolution demanding disarmament of Iraq. (Photo by ?? Brooks Kraft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY4: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar (L) pose with their wives Ludmila Putin (2nd L) and Ana Botella before their lunch at Moncloa Palace June 14. Putin said he had no reason to believe the arrest of media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky was politically motivated but vowed to examine the case, which has stirred stormy protest in Moscow. (Photo credit should read SERGEI KARPUKHIN/AFP/Getty Images)
(GERMANY OUT) Vladimir Putin - Politician, Mayor St. Petersburg, Russia - signs an agreement about the marketing of inventions. Second Mayor and Senator of Economics of Hamburg Hans-Juergen Krupp (right) (Photo by Ambor/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Moscow, russia, outgoing russian president boris yeltsin (r) shaking hands with russian prime minister and acting president vladimir putin (l) as he leaves moscow's kremlin, the seat of russian power,1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
Russian prime minister vladimir putin seen casting his vote during the elections to the state duma, at the polling station #2026 in moscow's kosygina street,moscow, russia, december 19, 1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
N362234 01: (FILE PHOTO) Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov on August 16, 1999. President Boris Yeltsin announced on national television Friday, Dec. 31, 1999 that he had resigned and presidential elections will be held within 90 days to replace him. Yeltsin said he was stepping down immediately because he wanted Putin to succeed him. Putin, the country's most popular politician, immediately took control of the government and will serve as acting president until the elections. (photo by Laski Diffusion/Liaison Agency)
SEVEROMORSK, RUSSIA - APRIL 7: Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin watches the tactical exercises of Russia's Northern Fleet in the Barentsevo Sea, 06 April 2000. Vladimir Putin spent the night underwater in a nuclear submarine near the Arctic Circle. (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
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With its “Question More” slogan, RT says its objective is to identify under-reported stories that mainstream media won’t cover.

“If all the media are singing one song, it gets dangerous, it really does,” Simonyan said. “Just remember the Iraq war. It’s important to at least try and say something different.”

Asked if RT aims to influence audiences in the West, Simonyan maintains RT sets out to inform. "If you think informing is influence, then you can put it in those words."

U.S intelligence agencies disagree. A declassified version of the "Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections" report said:

  • "RT's criticism of the U.S. election was the latest facet of its broader and longer-standing anti-U.S. messaging likely aimed at undermining viewers' trust in U.S. democratic procedures and undercutting U.S. criticism of Russia's political system."
  • "The Kremlin staffs RT and closely supervises RT's coverage, recruiting people who can convey Russian strategic messaging because of their ideological beliefs."
  • "In recent interviews, RT's leadership has candidly acknowledged its mission to expand its U.S. audience and to expose it to Kremlin messaging."
  • "RT's reports often characterize the United States as a 'surveillance state' and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use."
  • "RT America formally disassociates itself from the Russian Government by using a Moscow-based autonomous nonprofit organization to finance its US operations ... In addition, RT rebranded itself in 2008 to deemphasize its Russian origin."
  • "Russia’s state-run propaganda machine contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences."

However, RT anchor and correspondent Kate Partridge, 47, said she had never felt pressure to report something she was not comfortable with.

“I am allowed to object,” she said. “But I can’t think of when I have been in a situation where I felt really fiercely against something.”

But others have spoken out.

RT America anchor Liz Wahl quit on air in 2014, saying the channel "whitewashes" the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. "As a reporter on this network I face many ethical and moral challenges," she told viewers from her studio in Washington, D.C. "I'm proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth. And that is why after this newscast I am resigning."

One of her colleagues, Abby Martin, also criticized Russia’s military intervention in Crimea, calling it “wrong.” In response to Martin's comments, RT said in a statement that "contrary to the popular opinion, RT doesn't beat its journalists into submission, and they are free to express their own opinions." Martin left the channel in 2015.

Andrey Kiyashko, the 29-year-old deputy head of news at RT, dismissed allegations the network offers nothing but Kremlin propaganda.

“It is a serious allegation and I would suggest to those people to pay a bit more attention to what’s going on in their own media landscape in terms of the bias in the news before they make such accusations," he said.

Earlier this year, RT launched its FakeCheck project to “weed out and correct inaccuracies, bias, misinformation and outright falsehoods in global coverage of major news stories." However, a recent Poynter Institute analysis of the project suggested it "mixed some legitimate debunks with other scantily sourced or dubiously framed fact checks."

In October, the network also had to pull a video segment about a burger joint in New York that allegedly offered a Vladimir Putin burger, in a tribute to the president's 65th birthday and his political stature. The story was picked up by some Russian state news agencies as well.

But thanks in part to a very observant Russian journalist, the story came under scrutiny and the joint eventually refuted the existence of the celebratory burger.

RT’s video agency that published the segment deleted the video, saying that upon further review "it did not meet its editorial standards.”

Partridge also dismissed claims RT was more propaganda than journalism and said her work features "so many checks."

She added: "By definition, there is an editorial concept here to show the other side. But you can say that about any media organization.”

Partridge echoed her editor-in-chief’s remarks, saying she thinks RT, and Russia in general, are misunderstood.

“I think it’s just a fear because it’s so unknown and because of the Cold War history, because of so many things — where it gets kind of a bad press and I think it has built up almost as de facto truth.”

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