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

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.

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."

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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."

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."

'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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