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MosNews.com, April 16, 2004

The State and Television

By Yevgeni Kiselyov, Editor-in-Chief of Moskovskiye Novosti (Moscow News) weekly

On April 14, three years ago, the author of this column and dozens of other journalists quit NTV to protest against Gazprom's takeover of the company. This was followed by an almost successful attempt to resurrect independent TV on TV-6, an unsavoury scandal involving its "liquidation" and finally the abortive TVS project. Some have returned to NTV, others are working at other channels, others at private producer companies, while some have even quit television altogether. What do we have left?

Three years ago, when many of my friends and I said that developments at NTV represented the start of an attack on democratic rights and freedoms, including freedom of the press, nobody believed us. We were mocked, sometimes very crudely and cynically.

Yabloko leaders supported us, but the leaders of the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) left us to fight on our own, announcing that they didn't see anything political in Gazprom's takeover of NTV - in their eyes it was only a conflict of ownership. Perhaps, if the SPS had adopted a different stance at the time, they would have witnessed different results at the recent State Duma elections.

Many things could have been different. To the credit of some, Boris Nemtsov of SPS at least, they recognize now that they had been wrong.

Who is ready to dispute today that the seizure of NTV from the obstinate Vladimir Gusinsky was a 100% political gesture? The authorities needed tight control over television, the most crucial tool for shaping public opinion. Recent elections, presidential and parliamentary, have shown quite clearly that the authorities didn't fight for television in vain. The main achievement of the past three years is the complete government takeover of Russian television air time.

The State owns five channels out of the six broadcast throughout the country in the prestigious one-meter bandwidth. NTV, the sixth channel, is controlled by the government through Gazprom and Eurofinance.

Just like TNT. Television journalists have alleged that REN TV, which currently belongs to the state corporation Russian Unified Energy System, will be sold as a non-core asset, and that the buyer has been chosen already- Eurofinance. The STS channel may have remained in private ownership of Mikhail Fridman's Alfa Group: however, it survived for the simple reason that it never broadcast anything other than entertainment.

What will happen next? At one point Press Minister Mikhail Lesin promised that there would soon be only one state television channel, one state radio station, and one state-controlled newspaper. Now Lesin is an advisor to the President and has been granted significant authority, but is his authority enough to make good on that promise? And was that promise sincere?

Leonid Nadirov, First Deputy Minister in the new Culture Ministry responsible for the press also seems to promote the idea that the state should control a minimal amount of the media. There are rumours that either the Kremlin or the government are drafting a law to transform one of the state TV channels into public TV.

In principle initiation of the process of transferring state electronic media to the public would fit in well with Vladimir Putin's stated intention of dedicating his second presidential term to the building of a civil society. Unless my memory fails me, he actually publicly promised to promote the creation of independent media. However, the president, despite his high rating and all the power he holds in his hands, could face violent resistance from the very thing he wants to reform. There are already signs of this resistance.

Oleg Dobrodeyev, the head of the largest State TV and radio holding company, recently gave a rather frank interview to the Commersant daily, published under the telling headline of "I am Radically Opposed to Making VGTRK [All-Russia State TV and Radio Commission] Public." The salient point of the interview is that there is no need to change anything, everything should remain as it is, because state-owned television is the best, most independent and most professional. The state sports channel is actually described as "having a unique psychotherapeutic effect in such a complicated country as Russia, where there is so much depression and other problems."

I agree that state television is capable of achieving a lot. I guess it isn't capable of just one thing: being a truthful mirror that the authorities can look at to find out how they are really viewed by the voters really. I agree with those who say that there will be no independent television like the "old NTV" in Russia until the people want it. And it looks as if the people don't see independent television as a living essential. I will second Khodorkovsky on the fate of television - in the near future, any liberalization of television can only happen if the Kremlin wills it.


See also:

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

MosNews.com, April 16, 2004

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