MOSCOW/PARIS Russia accused French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron's campaign team of discriminating against its media on Thursday, saying it had trampled on the freedom of the press by banning Russian news outlets from its events.
In Paris, a Macron spokesman confirmed that the Russian state-funded Sputnik news agency and RT TV channel had been barred from having media access to him, describing them as a "two-headed entity" which issued Russian state propaganda and fake news.
Macron, a pro-European Union ex-banker and centrist, is widely seen as favourite to win the French presidency on May 7 by beating far right leader Marine Le Pen.
Macron takes a hard line on EU sanctions imposed on Moscow over the Ukraine crisis, whereas Le Pen, an admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a eurosceptic who backs the lifting of sanctions and takes Russia's side on Ukraine.
The Kremlin has been irritated by accusations from Macron's camp that its campaign's networks, databases and sites have come under attack from locations inside Russia, fuelling suspicions that Russia is trying to undermine Macron's campaign in order to help Le Pen.
The Macron spokesman referred to the two news outlets' "systematic desire to issue fake news and false information".
"Spreading lies methodically and systematically - that's a problem," he said.
"If this creates problems with the Kremlin, it will be the subject of an open discussion in the event of the candidate (Macron) being elected," the spokesman said.
Moscow has rejected allegations of meddling, and on Thursday Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dubbed "outrageous" the move by Macron's team to refuse accreditation to Sputnik, RT and the Ruptly video agency last Sunday.
Zakharova said Moscow viewed the ban as "deliberate and bare-faced discrimination against Russian media by the presidential candidate of a state that has historically been vigilant when it comes to free speech."
She called on the relevant French authorities and international organisations to ensure that freedom of the press was upheld in the second round of voting.
PUTIN AND LE PEN
The Macron spokesman gave no specific examples of Russian media spreading fake news. But a Feb. 4 report by Sputnik quoted a pro-Putin centre-right French legislator as saying Macron was a puppet of U.S. political and financial elites and that revelations about his private life would soon be made public.
The report appeared to play a part in Macron being forced on Feb. 7 to deny rumours of an extra-marital gay relationship.
Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, said on social media that the Macron campaign was refusing to accredit her organisation and the others for the second round as well however.
"So this is how gracelessly freedom of speech ends in a country which prides itself on its freedoms almost more than it prides itself on its Camembert and Brie cheeses," said Simonyan.
Last February, when political parties were squaring off for the first round of the election, Richard Ferrand, the head of Macron's En Marche! party, accused Sputnik and RT of spreading fake news with the aim of undermining Macron's campaign.
RT has issued several statements denying suggestions that it is part of a campaign to spread fake news in relation to Macron and the French election.
Russia's Putin granted an audience to Le Pen in the Kremlin last month, bestowing a level of international recognition that had until then eluded her in the countdown to the election.
But the Kremlin says it is not backing any candidate in the election, which it says is purely a matter for the French people.
(Additional reporting by Michel Rose in Paris; Editing by Vladimir Soldatkin and Ralph Boulton)