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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.

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Simonyan argues that RT, which offers a variety of news, talk and documentary programming, itself enjoys "absolute editorial independence" from its main financial sponsor, the Kremlin. "What we do is offer a different view of the world, a list of stories you won't see covered in the mainstream media," she says. "Our goal is to do good journalism and increase our audience, and not to please someone up there."

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'I never thought I'd see this day'

Still, giant state-funded broadcasters like RT are thriving, while little independent outlets like REN are gasping for air, and that points to an inevitable outcome, some experts argue.

"What RT makes is a packaged propaganda product, which is bought and paid for by the Kremlin," says Alexei Samokhvalov, a former director of REN TV who now heads the independent National TV and Radio Research Center in Moscow.

"In another country, it might seem normal for TV stations to share technical facilities while maintaining separate editorial lines, but in Russia it does not work that way," Mr. Samokhvalov says.

"If REN TV moves into the RT's headquarters, and becomes dependent upon them for its very existence, it will lose its independence. When I was director of REN TV, we prized our independence. I never thought I'd see this day," he adds.

REN TV has grown from a tiny independent station into a nationwide TV network that now enjoys about 6 percent of Russia's market share, a tiny blip compared with the three state-owned TV behemoths, but beloved to Russian liberals because of its relatively independent editorial stance.

"If you compare with the other media outlets, REN is by far the most liberal, most outspoken, and shows the greatest degree of independence," says Vladimir Pozner, a leading Russian TV personality. "If it were to lose its independence, I would find that very disheartening."

Kremlin media crackdown

When Vladimir Putin came to power, nearly a decade ago, he began cracking down on Russia's once diverse and combative media spectrum, using economic levers of influence rather than Soviet-style brute force to corral journalists, critics have long said. The state-backed takeover of NTV by Gazprom produced a chilling effect on TV broadcasters around the country. The Kremlin subsequently orchestrated the downfall of smaller TV networks that failed to come to heel, including TV-6 in 2002 and TVS the following year. Some public opinion services, which provide journalists with raw information, were also brought under state control, leaving only a handful of small-circulation outfits, such as the liberal Ekho Moskvi radio station, that some critics say are allowed to exist as political window-dressing.

"Very clearly, the government wants that kind of window to remain open, because it's a way of saying 'Hey, we have democracy in Russia,' to the rest of the world," says Mr. Pozner. "Maybe they see REN TV playing this kind of role, and perhaps that will save it."

Russia's beleaguered liberals, who have watched the political landscape turn into a Sovietesque one-party show under Putin and his successor, Dmitri Medvedev, say they hold out little hope for the survival of the last media holdouts.

"Unfortunately, everything that has happened on the TV media front since Putin became president in 2000 suggests that the last vestiges of independent television will be muzzled as well," says Mr. Ryzhkov.

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