For Russian television shows, independence is the exception

Years after Soviet rule, government still keeps tight grip on broadcasts

September 06, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - In a small television studio in central Moscow crammed with cameras and video gear, anchorman Andrei Norkin recently sat at his desk and began what in Russia is a politically sensitive exercise. He delivered his afternoon newscast.

Increased defense spending, he reported, is leading to more accidents during military exercises. The nation's politically sensitive courts, he predicted, would allow prosecutors to extend the custody of a businessman of keen interest to the Kremlin. And he delivered a report critical of a Soviet-era anachronism - a city law requiring residents to hold permits to live in Moscow.

If he were working for a Russian network, Norkin might have thought twice about his controversial topics and skeptical tone. Every domestic broadcaster is owned or indirectly controlled by the Russian government. But Norkin, reading his newscast for Ekho-TV, does not face the same pressures as his colleagues.

Ekho-TV's newscasts are fed over the Internet to a New York-based satellite network called RTVi, owned by the fugitive Russian financier Vladimir A. Gusinsky. And while 10 million Russian-speaking viewers tune in each day, all of them live abroad, mostly in Britain, Israel and the United States. The show is not available on Russia's airwaves.

That viewers here would have to travel abroad to watch independent national television news demonstrates just how far the Kremlin has gone in reining in the media over the past 3 1/2 years. It also hints how much further President Vladimir V. Putin might be prepared to go to help his allies in parliamentary elections in December and to win re-election himself in the presidential contest in March.

Critics say Putin's government has also tried to silence foes in other centers of power, including academia and business.

But the state's headlock on the news media, 12 years after the fall of Soviet communism, is the most vivid evidence that in Russia, bad habits die hard. All six national television networks are owned outright by the Kremlin or owned or controlled by its allies.

"This is a real change in Russia," said Yasen Zasursky, head of the journalism faculty at Moscow State University. "During these past few years we have lost all our private national channels."

Some of the networks were already state-owned as part of the legacy of communism. The RTR and Kultura networks are government channels run directly by state agencies. TV Center is owned by the city of Moscow and controlled by the mayor, Yuri M. Luzhkov.

Forty-nine percent of the ORT network is owned by small investors, including journalists, but the majority stake is held by Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly.

Norkin once worked for NTV, then the most important of Gusinsky's television and publishing properties. In Russia's 2000 presidential elections, Gusinsky backed one of Putin's opponents. His channel, which attracted some of the most talented journalists, also showed coverage critical of Russia's war in Chechnya, and regularly lampooned Putin in a satirical puppet show.

Gusinsky soon found himself the target of police raids and investigations. He fled Russia for Spain in 2001, pursued by prosecutors. Later that year, Gazprom took control of NTV. Ekho-TV is the remnant of Gusinsky's former media empire.

The NTV takeover left only one independent television network, TV-6, owned by another Putin critic, expatriate billionaire Boris A. Berezovsky. Most of the NTV news team fled to TV-6 and continued their work. But in January 2002, a lawsuit by minority shareholders with strong ties to the Kremlin forced TV-6 into bankruptcy, using a law that had never before been invoked.

The government then agreed to let friendly tycoons buy the station, rename it TVS and let the old TV-6 news team run it. But the deal was troubled from the start, and the station suffered from low ratings and poor ad revenue. In June, the government again pulled the plug in the middle of a broadcast. TVS is now a government-owned, all-sports channel.

RIA Novosti, Russia's government news agency, recently boasted that the Ministry of Press and Information had issued more than 2,000 broadcast licenses since 1991. Russians, the agency noted, are free to watch foreign television if they can receive it, and thousands of new newspapers and magazines are being published.

But most of Russia's 144 million citizens, scattered across 11 time zones, live beyond the reach of national newspapers. Local periodicals and television channels are often controlled by local politicians. And the overwhelming majority of the population relies heavily on the television networks for their national news.

"In the Kremlin, they believe that to achieve some real results is possible only if you are in the control of the mass media organs," said Norkin, the Ekho-TV newscaster.

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