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Interview: REN-TV Editor In Chief Discusses Resignations

7 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In an exclusive interview given to RFE/RL's Russian Service on December, REN-TV Editor in Chief Ilya Kuzmenkov discussed the wave of resignations that has hit the Russian television channel this week.

News anchorwoman Olga Romanova submitted her resignation on 5 December. Information Service Editor Yelena Fedorova, Editor Olga Shorina, and program producer Tatyana Kolokova quickly followed suit.

Kuzmenkov said the resignations of the high-profile employees will certainly have an impact on the television channel, but that they made their own decisions. He also defended and explained REN-TV's editorial policies.

The resignations come in the wake of the REN-TV's decision to shut down the news program "24." Romanova, who anchored the program, claimed it was shut down after she unsuccessfully attempted to air news segments that may have been frowned upon by the Kremlin. Fedorova told RFE/RL in a 5 December interview that her own decision was primarily motivated by censorship on the part of the television station's management and its efforts to prevent her and fellow journalists from participating in editorial decisions.

REN-TV General Director Aleksandr Ordzhonikidze has denied that political considerations motivated the station's decision to cancel Romanova's program, saying the move was part of an effort to improve ratings.

REN-TV changed hands this year after the electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems (EES) sold its 70 percent stake in the company to the steel producer Severstal, which in turn sold a 35 percent stake to Russia's fourth-largest oil producer, Surgutneftegaz, in September. The Luxembourg-based RTL Group, which is part of the Germany-based Bertelsmann AG, owns a 30 percent stake in REN-TV.

Prior to the deal, REN-TV had been widely considered the last remaining independent television station with a national reach. The station's new owners had said there would be no change in editorial policy.

RFE/RL: Ilya, you have called Yelena Fedorova's decision to leave "expected." Does this mean that you are satisfied with her decision and that of her colleagues?

Ilya Kuzmenkov: You see, the first day when I had my meeting with the collective, I said I wanted to work with everyone at the channel. This has not changed to this day. I have not met everyone yet, but I have met most, and I must say, we have a very strong team right now, and I do not plan to bring in outsiders.

RFE/RL: So if you are prepared to cooperate, are [you] ready to offer [Fedorova] to stay, or are you not planning to do this?

Kuzmenkov: We discussed this last week. She submitted her statement. This, essentially, answers all questions.

RFE/RL: Ilya, do you sense any guilt or responsibility for her decision and for the decision of other people to leave the channel?

Kuzmenkov: Guilt?

RFE/RL: Yes.

Kuzmenkov: No. I don't feel any guilt.

RFE/RL: Who is going to lead the Information Service?

Kuzmenkov: I don't think Fedorova will be replaced by any one person. Her responsibilities -- which, I believe, were too concentrated for one job -- will be distributed among the current employees.

RFE/RL: In one interview, you mentioned that REN-TV must have a clearly defined position and have common sense. I don't think this entails the removal of certain stories, like the one about Kazakhstan, as we heard from Yelena Fedorova on [RFE/RL's "Time of Liberty" program on Monday, 5 December].

Kuzmenkov: We did have a piece on the elections in Kazakhstan.

RFE/RL: So why did you remove it?

Kuzmenkov: What do you mean? It aired.

RFE/RL: So, Yelena lied to us?

Kuzmenkov: I don't know what she said, so I can't comment on that, but I can tell you that there indeed was a piece on Kazakhstan.

RFE/RL: She publicly declared this. Perhaps it was removed from the European broadcasts?

Kuzmenkov: I'll have to look at our broadcasts and then answer this question.

RFE/RL: This is interesting. For the second week already, I have been communicating with people from your channel, and nobody is sure about this. Who is it that makes decisions about taking stories off the air? Can you tell me who makes these decisions? Who made these decisions in the previous weeks and who will make those decisions today should circumstances arise? I have no particular reason to trust Yelena Fedorova.

Kuzmenkov : How do you imagine this "removal of stories"? Suppose there is a program. Then what? Somebody comes along, presses a button and stories disappear?

RFE/RL: I know perfectly well how this happens. I have seen this happen before. The editor in chief comes along and says, "This isn't airing." They do this on the First, Second, and Third Channels.

Kuzmenkov: The editor in chief doesn't come when the story has already been done. The main editor participates in the discussion and planning of programs and stories. It starts with people submitting pitches. The editor in chief, together with his team, discusses and selects those stories, which will be featured in some program or another, depending on accessibility, relevance, etc.

RFE/RL: I understand that. Nevertheless, a week ago, when this story began developing, somebody had to have made the decision to not feature the story about [Defense] Minister [Sergei] Ivanov's son [who was involved in a car accident in which a woman was killed].

Kuzmenkov: It is hard for me to comment on this, because I was not working at the channel yet. I believe it was omitted in the editing process that I described.

RFE/RL: Is another part of the editing process the setting up of security guards around the studio? Apparently, no one makes those decisions either -- they just conjure themselves up from thin air.

Kuzmenkov: Again, I can only talk about that which I was witness to. I was not present when these incidents took place. As I understand it, Olga Romanova has taken a legal approach to the matter, the results of which we will soon learn.

RFE/RL: As a self-proclaimed "ultraliberal", what do you perceive as the job of professional, quality broadcasting?

Kuzmenkov: You are talking about the publication in "Nezavisimaya [gazeta]", right?

RFE/RL: Yes.

Kuzmenkov: Back then, we were all anti-Soviets. I was a journalist during those first revolutionary years in 1991-93. It is basically anti-sovkism (Eds. note: "sovok" is a derogative expression for "Soviet person" -- implying unrefined, irresponsible behavior). There is a line between being a sovok and being modern. Those old political formulas still define what we stand for and what we are against. Social-liberalism, ultra-liberalism, right-liberalism? In the context of the existing political infrastructure, these traditional definitions, as we can see from the American and European political culture, are not entirely precise. You cannot say "liberal" and thus wholly define your political stance. Today, liberals are both in the core of the opposition and in the heart of the government system. The same can be said about any traditional, political doctrine. For me, right now, the antithesis is that lying is sovok-like, and objectivity is modern; obscurity is sovok-like, and transparency is modern.

RFE/RL: I'm taking you on your word. This means that if you start controlling the information policy of the channel, stories like the one about Ivanov's son will be featured.

Kuzmenkov: Yes, if they meet these criteria.

RFE/RL: So, what are the criteria? To tell about a guy killing a woman ? Doesn't that fit?

Kuzmenkov: This information was in REN-TV news, in last week's coverage.

RFE/RL: To this end, are you satisfied with Marianna Maksimovskaya's program, "Nedelya" [Eds. A REN-TV political show.]

Kuzmenkov: Absolutely. I believe it sets a certain standard -- a very high standard of quality.

RFE/RL: So, the key soviet-anti-Soviet, obscure-transparent would show Maksimovskaya, not a sovok, right?

Kuzmenkov: Yes, I think so. It is a good example.

RFE/RL: Could you tell us who invited you to work for REN-TV?

Kuzmenkov: Aleksandr Ordzhonikidze, the general director.

RFE/RL: He was the only one?

Kuzmenkov: Yes.

RFE/RL: Have you known him for a long time?

Kuzmenkov: We studied in university together and we share some common views.

RFE/RL: Why does Mr. Ordzhonikidze have such a fear of publicity?

Kuzmenkov: He's not afraid of publicity.

RFE/RL: Yet, he has somehow delegated this responsibility to you.

Kuzmenkov: Well, I think it is logical. The job of a general director is general management, including administrative and financial decisions. The editor in chief is the one who forms information policy and this, generally, is what the public is interested in. This is why, I think, in a week or so I will try to gather all the journalists who are interested in TV journalism.

RFE/RL: Have the shareholders somehow responded to the fact that four employees --- four leading anchors -- have left the company, or are they uninterested in this?

Kuzmenkov: I don't communicate with the shareholders, so I don't have any comment on this. Issues concerning employees and the like are the concern of the general director and the editor in chief, which is my job. I don't think the shareholders have anything to do with this as far as public comments are concerned.

RFE/RL: I would think that in terms of reputation, when the main faces of the channel, as well as the director of the Information Service, leave, it has a significant impact on the company.

Kuzmenkov: It certainly does, but in this case, it is their own decision.