Oct 18, 2009

Russian TV channels come under state control

Campaigners accused the Kremlin today of killing off the last vestiges of independent television in Russia, after it emerged that the two remaining private TV channels would come under state control next year.

REN TV and St Petersburg's Fifth Channel, which are sometimes critical of the authorities, have until now been Russia's last semi-independent private TV stations. Although neither can be described as radical, they are the only channels on which opposition politicians can air their views, or where dissenting voices may be heard.

Next year both channels' news bulletins will be restructured, Russia's Kommersant newspaper reported today. The state-owned, pro-Kremlin English language television station Russia Today will take over responsibility for their news broadcasts from 2010, the paper added.

Journalists said they were appalled by the move.

"This means independent TV will be destroyed. It will disappear," said Oleg Ptashkin, a former correspondent with Russia's state-run Channel One TV. Ptashkin, who now runs an independent journalists' union, added: "Russians won't be able to find alternative views to state propaganda. We are returning to the Soviet regime and Soviet model."

Asked what he thought of Russia Today, founded by the Kremlin in 2005 to counter the effect of perceived "hostile" western reporting of Russia, he said: "It's North Korean television. They have a large budget and massive resources. But it's not really journalism. It's a third-rate channel which produces Soviet propaganda."

He added: "The message is simple. In Russia everything is great, we have the best president in the world and it's all super super. Abroad everything is terrible, they are out to get us, and people are constantly being killed in hurricanes and disasters. It's classic Soviet television."

The death of Russia's independent TV stations is a familiar theme to students of Vladimir Putin's rise to power. Soon after becoming president in 2000, Putin squashed the country's oligarch-owned independent TV stations, bringing them under the control of government-friendly corporations.

Until now, the Kremlin has not interfered with REN TV or the Fifth Channel, which are watched by only 10-15% of Russia's population. But the economic crisis, and fear of a popular uprising, appears to have persuaded Russia's risk-averse leadership to pull the plug on the last surviving television platforms for liberal views and discussion.

"Speaking personally, I'm sad. They have a brilliant team of professionals. They've won several prizes from the academy of Russian television," Olga Shorina, spokeswoman for the democratic opposition movement Solidarity, said. The movement's leaders, including the Kremlin critic and former chess champion Garry Kasparov, are banned from appearing on state television – but do occasionally feature on the federal REN TV.

The election last year of President Dmitry Medvedev has so far not reversed Russia's slide on media freedom. But it has created problems for journalists from Channel One, who now have to ensure that both Medvedev and Putin – Russia's prime minister – appear equally on the evening news. "If one gets three minutes, the other gets three minutes. Everyone is terrified of getting it wrong," a former insider said.

Russia's three main state TV networks – Channel One, Rossiya and NTV – all operate a "stop-list" of politicians and pundits who cannot appear. Predictably, it includes well-known Kremlin opponents.

But it also features enemies of Channel One's powerful general-director, Konstantin Ernst, insiders say.

The heads of all state-owned television channels, meanwhile, hold weekly meetings with Kremlin ideologues to decide what will appear on the news – and what won't.

The new head of REN TV, Mikhail Kontserev, declined to comment today . The channel's star anchorwoman Marianna Maksimovskaya, who hosts a political discussion show, said she was optimistic that the station would continue to broadcast "real" news.

"I don't know the new director yet. But I'm absolutely confident that in the short-term nothing will change, neither in our channel's politics, nor in our news," she told Kommersant.

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/oct/16/liberal-russian-channels-state-control