Politics Vibrates on Russian Airwaves

A state-controlled station axes two political TV shows, saying they are unpopular. But critics cry censorship.

RUSSIAN television is once again generating as much news as it is broadcasting, amid angry accusations of political censorship of the airwaves in the months before parliamentary elections.

Nobel Prize-winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn was told this week that his weekly 15-minute slot on the state-controlled Public Russian Television (ORT) was being axed, only three days after the same channel announced its decision to scrap a hard-hitting public-affairs program.

The moves have been denounced as a crude bid to silence voices critical of President Boris Yeltsin's government as parliamentary elections approach on Dec. 17.

''The ORT has got rid of broadcasts that contained criticism of today's state of affairs,'' charged Natalya Solzhenitsyn, wife of the celebrated Soviet dissident, who was forced into exile in 1974.

''Naturally the first to go, as happened 30 years ago, was Solzhenitsyn,'' she told the Itar-Tass news agency.

''There are more and more pressures against the free media and free press in Russia,'' claimed Igor Malashenko, president of the spiritedly independent NTV channel. ''Unfortunately, they will increase as the elections approach.''

ORT chief Sergei Blagovolin scoffed at these allegations yesterday. ''It cannot be that one man can speak for 15 minutes a week while others do not have that right'' during an election campaign, he said.

Not market-friendly

Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who returned from exile last year, used his TV spot to deliver monologues that often turned into harangues on the moral and political shortcomings of modern Russia.

ORT officials have suggested indirectly that Solzhenitsyn's show had become boring, and that the man once acclaimed as the conscience of the nation had lost touch with his people.

Their official reasons for scrapping Versions, a respected current-affairs program, had to do with costs and popularity. ''The price of the program was unbelievable, and its ratings were too low,'' Mr. Blagovolin said.

But such arguments do not convince NTV chief Mr. Malashenko, who snapped up Versions for his channel the day after it was dropped from ORT's autumn schedule. ''It is not a question of automatically putting on NTV anything cut from ORT,'' he insisted. ''We have a professional interest in Versions.''

NTV has developed a growing reputation as an independent channel that thrives on conflict with the authorities - although the authorities have generally been the ones to seek the conflict.

TV test in Chechnya

The station's dramatic coverage of the Chechnya war was unprecedented on Russian television and won NTV few friends in government. The prosecutor general has opened two investigations of the statio: one for interviewing a Chechen rebel leader and one for poking fun at senior government officials through a show that featured grotesque puppets.

ORT, meanwhile, which is 51 percent owned by the government and 49 percent by corporate investors, is clearly having more difficulty establishing its identity six months after its launch.

The station's first director, Vladimir Listyev, a highly popular TV journalist and talk-show host, was killed by unknown gunmen before the station even went on the air, apparently in connection with his decision to ban advertising until he had cleaned up the corruption-ridden business.

As the country's most widely watched television station, ORT wields tremendous political clout, and its choice of news coverage is highly sensitive.

The host of the canceled Versions current-affairs program, Sergei Doryenko, accused the station of deliberately denying coverage to leading opposition politicians such as Grigory Yavlinsky and Yegor Gaidar.

Though Blagovolin refuted that, ORT officials do not shy away from political judgements.

''We do not conceal our political views,'' the station said in a statement yesterday. ''Without identifying itself with any single party or electoral bloc, ORT strives to promote ideas of public accord, stability, and constructive pluralistic ideology.''

''It is clear that they will support some candidates and not support others through their news and current-affairs coverage,'' says Ellen Mickiewicz, an expert on post-Soviet television at Duke University in Durham, N.C., in a phone interview. ''They have a specific set of positions in terms of the coming elections and they will make sure those are disseminated.''

Blagovolin pledged that his station would respect Central Electoral Commission rules on providing set periods of free air time to election candidates. But he has also made it clear that politicians who carry their opposition to the government too far cannot expect much coverage on his channel.

Whether this will serve the government's interests is not clear, says Professor Mickiewicz.

State-run television ran many programs then that were designed to hurt the chances of radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky before the last parliamentary elections in 1993. But ''they probably had the opposite effect,'' she says. Mr. Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party won almost 25 percent of the vote.

''The more heavy-handed television policy is, the greater the probability of a public opinion backlash,'' Mickiewicz suggests.

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