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Russia's last independent TV stations to move into Kremlin-owned studios

Russia's National Media Group cites economic motives in moving REN TV and the outspoken St. Petersburg Channel Five. But critics worry the partnering move with Russia Today may presage a loss of editorial freedom.

By CorrespondentMoscow / October 23, 2009



Russia's last two independent TV voices, citing financial distress, have announced a major "restructuring" that may involve partnering with state agencies, with what many liberal critics fear could be an inevitable loss of editorial freedom.

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Officials of the National Media Group, which owns the independent REN TV and the outspoken St. Petersburg Channel Five, insist they're just looking for economic efficiencies in the reported plans to move REN's operations into a giant Moscow TV center run by the Kremlin's pocket news agency, RIA-Novosti, and home to its 24-hour English-language satellite TV station Russia Today (RT). But liberals say they've seen this happen several times before, beginning with the Kremlin's stealthy use of a commercial dispute to take over the only nonstate nationwide TV network, NTV, at the beginning of the Vladimir Putin era in 2001.

"These two small channels are the very last islands of media freedom in Russia, and if they are to be restructured in the ways we have seen, all too often in the past, they will become part of the official propaganda machine," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former independent Duma deputy. "We are all watching this process with deep fears that, once again, economic optimization will actually lead to censorship. In Russia's TV landscape today, there is basically no freedom."

Russia Today: technical support, editorial influence?

In the past, the Kremlin's chosen vehicle for taking over critical media assets was the state-owned natural-gas goliath, Gazprom, but today liberals are pointing their fingers at a surprising new culprit: Russia Today. Started up less than four years ago as a Kremlin project to counter Western "misperceptions" about Russia, RT has burgeoned under a lavish flow of state funding into a huge operation that now boasts an Arabic-language service and a soon-to-launch Spanish service. According to the station's editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, a new US branch of RT is set to begin broadcasting from studios in Washington, D.C., in January, and will be running special US-oriented programming, 24/7, within a year.

Ms. Simonyan says it's logical that little stations like REN TV would want to partner with RT, because the English-language station now possesses one of the most modern and sophisticated broadcasting centers in the country.

"Because of this, we can support them technologically," she says. "We are not going to interfere with their editorial content. That's not the idea at all."

That pledge is also offered by officials of the two beleaguered stations, who say they are forced to make radical changes due to sagging advertising revenues and rising shareholder demands to show a profit. "We need to find new premises for REN TV, and we may outsource some technical functions," says Asya Pomeranets, a company public relations representative. "But the stations will retain their distinctive content."

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