RT, the Kremlin-backed television network formerly called Russia Today, is setting up its first Africa bureau as President Vladimir Putin seeks to entrench support in a continent that’s largely refrained from criticising his invasion of Ukraine.

The company said in a response to a query that it’s “currently focused on developing our English-language Africa hub in South Africa”, which will be headed up by Paula Slier, a South African broadcaster who ran RT’s Jerusalem bureau.

The entry into Africa contrasts with bans on RT put in place by the European Union, the UK and Canada shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said at the time that RT and Sputnik, another Russian broadcaster, “would no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war and to sow division in our union”. RT countered in a June court appeal that the EU was illegally silencing its journalists.

MultiChoice Group, Africa’s biggest pay-TV provider, halted RT’s channel after EU sanctions stopped a global distributor from providing the broadcast.

Providing RT’s services in Africa would add to a concerted media and social media campaign by Russian diplomats on the continent to counter accusations from Europe and the US that Russia’s invasion is unjustified and driving up global food and fuel prices.

Slier, a former employee of the SABC, began running RT’s Middle East Bureau in 2005, according to her website.

In a March column for Johannesburg’s Eyewitness News, Slier defended the channel and said it had never hidden that it represented the point of view of the government. Slier said that while she was “conflicted” by the invasion, most Russians supported it and assumptions by the country’s opponents that they were misinformed by state media is “unfair and, frankly, insulting”.

The operation in South Africa appears to be a pivot from an earlier plan, before the war, to establish an African hub in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. In a 10 February advertisement on RT’s website, the network said it planned to set up an office in the city and was seeking to hire journalists. RT didn’t respond to a 20 July query about its plans for Kenya.

An Africa operation will put RT into competition with other government-backed broadcasters such as the BBC and China Global Television Network.  — Bloomberg