Accessibility links

Media Matters: September 26, 2001

26 September 2001, Volume 1, Number 31
EDITOR FOUND GUILTY OF INSULTING PRESIDENTIAL ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL. A district court in Baku on 17 September sentenced Shahbaz Huduoglu, editor of the independent newspaper "Milletin Sesi" (Voice of the Nation), to six months imprisonment for insulting the honor and dignity of presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev, Turan reported. The paper had alleged a liaison between Mekhtiev and a call girl. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September)

JOURNALIST IMPRISONED. On 17 September, a Baku court sentenced the editor in chief of the weekly "Milletin Sesi" (Voice of the Nation), Eynulla Fetullaev, to six months of imprisonment and opened a criminal case against the journalist. The paper frequently ran stories about official corruption. A woman journalist, Gulnaz Qemberli, was sentenced to three months detention. (Journalists' Trade Union, 17 September)

INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPER ISSUE CONFISCATED AGAIN. Prosecutors in Hrodna, western Belarus, on 12 September seized a print run of 8,132 copies of the local independent newspaper "Pahonya," Belapan reported. "Pahonya" Editor in Chief Mikalay Markevich told the agency that this latest seizure may be linked to the confiscation of a "Pahonya" issue earlier this month, when regional investigators launched a probe into the publication of an article deemed defamatory to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 September)

STUDENTS PROTEST CLOSURE OF BELARUSIAN-LANGUAGE SCHOOL. Students on 17 September picketed the City Hall in Svetlahorsk, southeastern Belarus, protesting the announced closure of the local branch of the Minsk-based National State Humanities Lycee, Svetlahorsk's only Belarusian-language school, Belapan reported. Last week the city authorities ordered the school closed and its students transferred to another school. Those opposing the closure say the authorities have long resented the school's unconventional teaching methods and its use of the Belarusian language instead of Russian. "Our classes continue as usual despite the fact that the lycee is no longer getting any funding," school director Telman Maslyukou told the agency. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September)

PREMIER UNAWARE OF LANGUAGE AGREEMENT WITH MACEDONIA? Bulgarian dailies on 19 September wrote extensively about what they view as Premier Simeon Saxecoburggotski's lack of knowledge about the country's recent relations with Macedonia, BTA reported. Saxecoburggotski told reporters after meeting with Macedonian Premier Ljubco Georgievski that he and his culture minister will "do our best" to resolve the "language problem" between the two countries. Bilateral relations between the two countries were stymied for several years over the Macedonian government's claims that Macedonian is a separate language, while Bulgaria insisted it is a Bulgarian dialect. A compromise between the two on the issue was reached in 1999. The daily "Trud" said it appears Saxecoburggotski is unaware of the agreement. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 19 September)

STOCKHOLM ARBITRAGE COURT RULES AGAINST CZECH REPUBLIC IN TV BATTLE. A Stockholm arbitrage court ruled on 14 September that the Czech state damaged the investment interests of Central European Media Enterprises (CME) under the terms of a Dutch-Czech investment treaty, "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported on 17 September. CME lost the first of its arbitration efforts against the Czech Republic over an investment in the country's leading commercial television station, TV Nova. Vladimir Zelezny, a former CME employee, still controls TV Nova. Both Zelezny and Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan signaled that the Czech side will seek an appeal, though CME insists the decision cannot be appealed and is focusing on a new round to determine compensation levels. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September)

TV NOVA ENTERS SLOVAK MARKET. The Czech Republic's major private television network TV Nova has entered the Slovak market by buying a 70 percent stake in Slovakia's TV Global operator Mac TV, TASR reported on 17 September, quoting Nova Director Vladimir Zelezny. "The plan we have long been talking about is becoming reality. We are looking forward to finally being able to offer Slovak viewers television of a quality so far known only to some Slovak citizens," Zelezny said. Slovakia's most popular television station Markiza seems to be dubious about Nova's intentions. "TV Nova wants to create some kind of federal Czechoslovak broadcasting and will turn Global into a wastebasket for their own shows that turn out to be unsuccessful," Markiza co-owner Pavol Rusko said. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September)

TBILISI POLICE TO IMPROVE TREATMENT OF JOURNALISTS? Kakha Bakuradze, the Ministry of Internal Affairs new chief in Tbilisi, told journalists he plans to improve the militia's human rights record, including its poor treatment of journalists, according to a report by the SNA news agency on 18 September. As part of this effort, Bakuradze announced that 12 policemen have already been dismissed as a result of a 16 September Rustavi-2 program which documented police brutality, including torture and blackmail. See: (Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, 18 September)

JALAL-ABAD REGIONAL COURT UPHOLDS RULING ON JOURNALIST. The board of the Jalal-Abad regional court upheld a ruling of the Jalal-Abad city court of 13 July concerning "Tribuna" newspaper journalist Ulugbek Babakulov. The journalist accused Judge Arzymbek Akyev of violating laws and demanded 10,000 soms (about $205) in compensation, but the city court acquitted the judge on 13 July. According to Babakulov, the judge did not allow him to tape a discussion during a court session in which members of parliament participated and threw him out of the room earlier this year. ("RFE/RL Kyrgyz News," 14 September)

NEW MEDIA SUSPENDED. Local journalists consider the cancellation of registration of, and moratorium on, new mass media for a half-year period as pressure on independent mass media. See (CAMEL, July-August)

BATKEN PRESS UNABLE TO ADDRESS KEY REGIONAL ISSUES. Plagued by logistical problems, the media in Batken Oblast is unable to concentrate on key issues of the region, despite the public's high demand for news. See (CAMEL, July-August)

INCREASED PRESSURE ON MEDIA IN THE SOUTH. During the few last months, the media in southern areas of the country face an increasingly difficult financial position plus several trials of reporters. See (CAMEL, July-August)

NEW BUGGING SCANDAL IN MACEDONIA... The Skopje dailies "Dnevnik" and "Utrinski vesnik" on 15 September published the transcript of a telephone conversation between the leaders of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH), Branko Crvenkovski and Arben Xhaferi, respectively. The transcript had been sent by fax to the newspapers by an anonymous source, "to expose the high treason" of the two leaders. Earlier this year, the Macedonian government under Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization -- Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) was accused of having bugged the telephone lines of leading opposition politicians, journalists, and foreign diplomats. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September)

...WHILE MINISTER DENIES INVOLVEMENT. In response to the newspaper reports, both Xhaferi and Crvenkovski charged that Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski is behind the bugging, "Dnevnik" reported on 15 September. "It is obvious that the illegal bugging [of telephones] is still going on in Macedonia," he said. Xhaferi commented: "Behind all this stands 'Big Brother' Ljube Boskovski. That shows that there is something wrong with the state institutions." Boskovski denied to comment on the issue, saying he "lacked information." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September)

RADIO JOURNALIST SUSPENDED. Following President Ion Iliescu's protest of a 17 September Romanian public radio interview with extremist Senator Corneliu Vadim Tudor, journalist Paul Grigoriu was suspended from his post, Mediafax reported. During the interview with Grigoriu, Tudor reiterated his charges that in 1995 Iliescu approved the training of Hamas members by the Guard and Protection Service. Public radio Director Andrei Dimitriu said Grigoriu had permitted transforming the station into an instrument of political fighting. He added the radio "will not tolerate similar mistakes" in the future and will do its best to keep the radio balanced and politically independent. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 19 September)

'FROM SHOCK TO HATRED.' The Russian media on 13 September continued to be dominated by articles about the terrorist attacks in the U.S. An article in "Vremya MN" said that the world is moving "from shock to hatred" as a result of these attacks. One in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" said that the 20th century "ended on Tuesday" when the attacks took place. An article in "Izvestiya" said that the attacks point to "a war of civilizations" and a transformation of the international environment. Another in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" suggested that the bombings are likely to mean "the end of the liberal model of democracy and of the economy that has enabled the vast majority of countries to be exploited by just a few." "Vremya MN" for its part suggested that the bombings point to "a new world disorder." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 September)

DOBRODEEV SAYS U.S. COVERAGE OF TERRORIST ATTACKS WAS MUCH BETTER THAN RUSSIAN. Oleg Dobrodeev, who heads the Russian State Radio and Television Committee, said in an interview published in "Izvestiya" on 15 September that American television did a good job in covering the terrorist attacks but that Russian coverage was significantly weaker. He was especially critical of Russian television for showing the same horrific scenes over and over without adding anything new to them. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September)

PAVLOVSKII WARNS THAT TERRORISTS CAN USE MEDIA AS A WEAPON. Kremlin media adviser Gleb Pavlovskii said on 18 September that terrorists can deploy new information technologies as their "most dangerous" weapons and that he is creating a Center of Defense Technology to meet this threat, Russian news agencies reported. Pavlovskii said that this threat proves that critics of the Russian Information Security Doctrine are wrong. At the same time, he said that the world is now at the edge of a global crisis and that "for the first time in 50 years," both the Russian people and the Russian government are ready to meet it. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 19 September)

ISLAMIC EXTREMIST ISSUES WARNING TO U.S. VIA MOSCOW PAPER. "Vremya novostei" on 14 September published an interview with Abu Khamsa, the leader of the militant Islamic extremist organization Ansar Ash-Sharia. Khamsa said that the attacks on the U.S. represent a "warning to all those at war with Muslims." An Egyptian citizen who lost his eye and hand while fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan and who is reputed to have close ties with Osama bin Laden, Khamsa said that "oppressed Muslims" have no chance to fight the enemies of Islam on their own territory and so must attack the enemy on its territory as they did in New York and Washington last week. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September)

MOSCOW REPORTER'S FATHER KILLED IN ATTACK ON U.S. Aboard the American Airlines Flight 11 which slammed into the World Trade Center (WTC) on 11 September was Alexander Filipov, 70, the father of David Filipov, the Moscow correspondent for "The Boston Globe." Since then, Filipov has seen the video of his father's plane hitting the WTC. "That's surreal and hard," he said on 13 September. "You don't expect to see your father's death played on national television over and over again." Filipov said he has no desire for revenge against the terrorists, and he fears that if the United States retaliates more innocent people could be killed. Filipov, 38, once a reporter at "The Moscow Times," has been working in Moscow for about a decade and has covered Chechnya and other hot spots. ("The Moscow Times," 14 September)

JOURNALIST COVERING WORLD TRADE CENTER HAS HEART ATTACK. ITAR-TASS correspondent Yurii Kirilchenko was "among the first" journalists on the scene of the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in New York, his agency said. He helped several Americans who had been hurt but later suffered a heart attack himself from stress. American surgeons performed a seven-hour open heart surgery and thus saved his life, ITAR-TASS said with gratitude. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 September)

SUPREME COURT OVERRULES DEFENSE MINISTRY ON SECRECY. The Russian Supreme Court on 13 September struck down sections of a 1996 Defense Ministry secrecy decree that have been used to prosecute researchers for spying, AP reported. The court did not provide any details of its decision, and the ministry refused to make any comment. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 September)

TROOP CASUALTIES IN CHECHNYA: A MILITARY SECRET... On 13 September, Ren TV reported that the military collegium of the Russian Supreme Court has ordered deletions to the list of military secrets. This list, adopted by order of the defense minister, had held that all military casualties -- even during peacetime -- were to be considered classified. The Supreme Court spokesman did not, however, specify which clauses of the Defense Ministry order the court has ordered deleted. In any case, the Supreme Court ruling calling for deletions to the list of military secrets can be appealed until 27 September. (Ren TV, 13 September)

...OR IS THE MILITARY PROTECTING ITS TURF? The military and secret police in Vladivostok are re-examining evidence against Grigorii Pasko, a naval officer who publicized on naval pollution in the Pacific. Although Pasko won his case, prosecutors won an appeal and obtained a retrial. "No one in Russia actually knows what a state secret is," Pasko wrote last week in "Novaya gazeta." Pasko and others claim that the military defines and protects "departmental secrets rather than state secrets." As a result, the government can arbitrarily press treason charges. ("The Guardian (UK)," 13 September)

OFFICIALS SAY PASKO HAD SECRET DOCUMENTS. Specialists at the Defense and Atomic Energy ministries said on 14 September that they have determined that several documents in the possession of military journalist Grigorii Pasko included secret information, Interfax reported. Military prosecutors are seeking to convict him of espionage. Meanwhile, "Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie," No. 34, carried an interview with Sergei Kaplin, the chief of the Information Security Department of the Russian General Staff, who pointed out that the tasks of military censors in determining what is secret and what is not are extremely complicated. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September)

NEWSPAPERS LIKELY TO COST 40-45 PERCENT MORE IN 2002. Deputy Media Minister Vladimir Grigorev said on 13 September that as a result of the end of subsidies to the press, Russian newspapers are likely to cost 40-45 percent more after 1 January 2002, Interfax reported. In comments published in "Kommersant-Daily" the same day, Grigorev said that the scale of piracy of compact discs and cassettes in Russia is so large that it almost defies a legal solution. In order to try to cope with the problem, Grigorev said, his ministry is drafting new legislation on licensing for producers of such systems. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 September)

COMMUNICATIONS MINISTER OPPOSES WTO ENTRY. Communications and Information Minister Leonid Reiman on 18 September told a group of Duma deputies that if Russia were to become a member of the World Trade Organization now, that would harm rather than help his sector of the economy, Interfax reported. He explained that the WTO works to defend exporters, and Russia at present is not a major exporter of communications technology. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 19 September)

JORDAN SEEKS INVESTORS TO BUY FIRMS OWNED BY GAZPROM-MEDIA. Boris Jordan, the general director of NTV, said in an interview published in "Kommersant-Daily" on 14 September that he is seeking Russian and foreign investors to form a consortium to buy media outlets now owned by Gazprom-Media. He said that this might involve either the formation of a single new media company or several smaller ones. Meanwhile, ORT television officially announced the selection of Hermitage Director Mikhail Piotrovskii as the head of its director's council. The same day, Moscow city officials expressed their condolences in connection with the death of former ORT Director Sergei Blagovolin, Interfax-Moscow reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September)

DUMA DRAFTING BILL TO REQUIRE PEOPLES OF RUSSIA TO USE CYRILLIC ALPHABET. Kaadyr-ool Bicheldei, a Unity deputy in the Duma who is deputy chairman of the Nationalities Committee, told Interfax on 18 September that he and his colleagues are preparing amendments to the country's language law in order to require that all peoples of the Russian Federation use a Cyrillic-based alphabet unless the Russian parliament grants an exception. The measure is explicitly designed to block plans by Tatarstan to introduce a Latin-based script over the next decade. Meanwhile, an international "Language and Culture" conference in Moscow the same day came out against Tatarstan's plans to change alphabets, the news agency reported. Such a shift, the conference said in a declaration, will result in declining literacy rates, greater generational splits, and the possibility of heightened interethnic and interconfessional tensions. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 19 September)

GOVERNMENT NEWSPAPER PUBLISHES APPEAL AGAINST LATIN SCRIPT. "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 14 September published an appeal by some 40 representatives of the Tatar intelligentsia living in Moscow and Russian regions outside of Tatarstan calling on Kazan to stop its transition to using Latin rather than Cyrillic script for the Tatar language, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported. According to the appeal, such a shift would be "destructive" and separate Tatars from "a modern national culture." RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported that the letter was prepared by the Kremlin and that the Russian presidential administration pressured Tatars in Moscow to sign it. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September)

PROMINENT ACADEMICIAN WANTS REFERENDUM ON TATARSTAN'S ADOPTION OF LATIN ALPHABET. Tatarstan's ongoing transition from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet was dictated not by linguistic but rather by political considerations, the website quoted Tatar Turcologist Edham Tenishev as saying in Moscow on 17 September, RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reported. Tenishev argued that a referendum should be conducted on the issue. Tenishev was one of the signatories of an open letter to Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiev, which was published on 14 September in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" and called for the transition to the Latin alphabet to be stopped. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September)

SPORT-FM APPEALS FOR GOVERNMENT AID. The employees of the Sport-FM radio station that faces closure because of bankruptcy appealed to President Vladimir Putin and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov on 14 September to provide state support for the station, Interfax reported. They said that sports coverage of the kind they offer has "colossal social importance." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September)

CENTRAL CITY INTRODUCES INTERNET-BASED PAYMENTS. According to the website on 17 September, the city of Vladimir has become the first Russian city where it is possible for residents to pay for public utilities, telephone, cable television, and pager connection through the Internet. The local Vladimir branch of Menatep also offers residents a free course on how to use computers. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September)

INTERNET CONTINUES TO EXPAND. A conference this week in St. Petersburg called "The Russian School and the Internet" noted that there are now 16 regions in which Internet education is being pursued and that Moscow hopes to increase that to 50 regions in the near future, "Vremya MN" reported on 18 September. But Russia faces enormous costs in bringing information systems into the schools. Duma deputy speaker and Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader Irina Khakamada told the conference that it would require up to $400 billion to bring all of Russia's schools into the information age, Interfax reported. Meanwhile, according to research reported by the Russian news service the same day, the number of Russian Internet users grew by 30 percent between the first half of 2000 and the first half of 2001. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 19 September)

MEDIA FREEDOM UNCHANGED UNDER NEW REGIME... The Independent Alliance of Serbian Journalists told a press conference on 13 September that little has changed in terms of media freedom since the overthrow of the Milosevic regime. "Each time the passage of the Broadcast Act is postponed, the situation becomes more chaotic. Those in the advertising market who contributed to democratic changes have gone out of business," Alliance of Private Broadcasters Secretary-General Slobodan Djoric said. New stations spring up every day "technically jamming the existing ones and serving as unfair competition to them within the ad market. That is why this act could be another test for the new powers," Djoric added. ("ANEM Weekly Media Update," 8-14 September)

...WHICH 'LACKS VISION?' On 13 September, media analyst Snezana Milivojevic accused the current authorities of lacking any vision on the role of media, claiming that control of the state media today bears many similarities to that of a year ago. ("ANEM Weekly Media Update," 8-14 September)

PUBLIC DISCUSSION ON NEW INFORMATION ACT? The Information Act is completed, but needs to undergo public discussion, which will most probably start in the second half of September, Rade Veljanovski, Radio Beograd director and head of the legal drafting group, told the daily "Glas javnosti" on 13 September. Veljanovski also said that the seventh draft of the Broadcast Act had been delivered to the Serbian government a month ago, and that everything has been at a standstill since then. "We still have not communicated with the new federal telecommunication minister," adding that the delay was due to summer vacations. ("ANEM Weekly Media Update," 8-14 September)

APPEAL FOR PROTECTION OF JOURNALISTS. The Workgroup for Protection of Journalists called on government officials on 10 September to stop holding media or journalists responsible for problems in Yugoslavia. The weekly "Nedeljni telegraf" Editor in Chief Momcilo Djorgovic said he "felt insecure" after Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica had called certain media organizations "anti-Yugoslav oriented." ("ANEM Weekly Media Update," 8-14 September)

RIGHTS PROTECTION FUND FOR JOURNALISTS. The purpose of the Fund of Memory and Protection of Rights of Journalists of Tajikistan is to immortalize those journalists who died during the civil war, and to protect the rights of journalists and freedom of speech in the country. See (CAMEL, July-August)

MEDIA MAGNATES 'TO SERVE THE INTERESTS OF SOCIETY.' The owners of the two media groups which today dominate the printed press market believe that competition is meant to serve the interests of the whole Tajik press and of the society itself. See (CAMEL, July-August)

ACCESS TO INFORMATION: GUARANTED BUT NOT IMPLEMENTEED. As access to government sources of information becomes more difficult in Tajikistan, some believe that journalists, due to their lack of professionalism, also share some responsibility. See (CAMEL, July-August)

PRESIDENT MAKES DEBUT AS NOVELIST. A two-volume novel by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has been published in Ashgabat, Interfax reported on 12 September. The work is based on diaries Niyazov kept during the late 1980s after he was elected first secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 September)

CAMERAMAN ATTACKED IN LUHANSK. On the evening of 26 August, Aleksey Movsesyan, a 23-year-old cameraman with the independent TV station Efir-1 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk, was assaulted and sustained critical head injuries. Although officials deny political motives for the attack, the television station for which the journalist works is known for its reporting which is critical of the local authorities. (Committee to Protect Journalists Press Release, 18 September)

UKRAINIANS MARCH TO REMEMBER GONGADZE. Some 4,000 people took part in a march and a rally in Kyiv on 15 September to remember the slain journalist Heorhiy Gongadze who went missing on 16 September 2000, world agencies reported. "The world has been concerned with the terrorist acts in the U.S., but it is much worse when the state, the authorities are using terror," Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz told the crowd on Kyiv's Independence Square. The secret recordings made public by presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko last year suggest that President Leonid Kuchma and top state officials may be implicated in the killing of Gongadze. The demonstration, organized by the anti-Kuchma National Salvation Forum, took place without incident. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September)

PROSECUTOR VOWS TO SOLVE JOURNALIST'S MURDER. Speaking at a public hearing in Kyiv on 17 September, Deputy Prosecutor-General Oleksiy Bahanets said the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze will probably be solved soon, STB Television reported. According to Bahanets, had it not been for the tragedy in the U.S., FBI experts invited by the Prosecutor-General's Office would have been already working on the case. "The Prosecutor-General's Office has reinforced the investigating team. Detectives who successfully solved murders in previous years -- those of parliamentary deputy Yevhen Shcherban and of [former National Bank Governor Vadym] Hetman -- are taking part in the investigation of this case," Bahanets said. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September)

EUROPEAN UNION CALLS FOR IMPROVED MEDIA FREEDOM. At a 11 September summit meeting between European Union and Ukrainian government officials in Yalta, senior EU representatives called on President Kuchma to improve press freedom conditions in the country during the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2002. At the opening of the summit, Guy Verhofstadt, the prime minister of Belgium, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, stated, "These elections must be used to show that journalists can work freely in Ukraine," according to AFP. (Committee to Protect Journalists Press Release, 18 September)

LIVE RADIO COVERAGE OF PARLIAMENT TO BEGIN. The parliament passed a resolution ordering the National Radio Company to provide live coverage of the current parliamentary session four days a week. The resolution also obliges the National Television Company to air a daily 30-minute information program about parliamentary session proceedings on the UT-1 and UT-2 state-run channels. The document requests that President Kuchma sack National Television Company head Vadym Dolhanov for his failure to implement last year's parliamentary resolution on the television coverage of the preceding parliamentary session. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 September)

JOURNALISM FACES NUMEROUS PROBLEMS. In addition to strict censorship, journalism in Uzbekistan may suffer from dilettantism, incompetence, or ethical violations. See (CAMEL, July-August)

PHOTOJOURNALISM: ANOTHER SIGN OF DECLINE. Photojournalism in Uzbekistan shows many signs of weakness. See (CAMEL, July-August)


By Laura Belin

Although it attracted less attention than Russian Public Television's (ORT) announcement last month that it would stop broadcasting the popular children's program of more than 30 years "Spokoinoi nochi, malyshi!" (Goodnight, Kids!), a presidential decree signed around the same time will have much broader implications for television broadcasting in Russia. President Vladimir Putin's decree established a new state-owned company, the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System. It will comprise nearly 90 radio and television transmission facilities, including the Ostankino television tower in Moscow, as well as relay communications lines that have been part of the Communications Ministry's jurisdiction.

The Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System is the brainchild of Mikhail Lesin, head of the Ministry for the Press, Radio and Television Broadcasting, and Mass Communications. Its stated purpose is to lay the foundation for better management of Russia's radio and television transmission towers, which are in urgent need of investment. The towers were run by the Communications Ministry until a 1998 presidential decree (also pushed by Lesin) transferred them to a new state-owned holding company called the All-Russian State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK). In 1998, Lesin was the number-two man at state-owned Russian Television (RTR), which became the central entity in the VGTRK holding company.

Experts agree that Russia's dilapidated facilities for transmitting television and radio signals need better management. The devastating fire at the Ostankino tower in August 2000 was attributed to overloaded circuits. After the economic crisis of 1998, when many television and radio stations had trouble paying for signal distribution, those in charge of Ostankino compensated for lost revenue by signing deals with telecommunications companies, such as paging services, allegedly ignoring warnings about the fire risk.

It is also logical to separate management of signal-distribution facilities from the radio and television broadcasting companies in the VGTRK holding company. In fact, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development made separating management of the Ostankino tower from VGTRK a condition of a loan that helped financed the reconstruction of Ostankino, according to "Novye izvestiya" on 31 August.

However, Russian commentators have expressed concerns about Putin's decree on several grounds. Drafted by Media Ministry staff, the decree is a major bureaucratic victory for Lesin. The Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System will report to the Media Ministry. Its general director, though appointed by the president, will report to Lesin. The new enterprise will receive federal-budget funds, as well as fees for signal distribution from virtually all of the state-owned and private broadcasting companies in the Russian Federation. The Media Ministry estimates that the annual turnover of the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System will be $150 million to $180 million.

Officials say the money will be used to improve technology at the radio and television towers. But the new broadcasting system could become yet another cash cow controlled indirectly by Lesin. The Media Ministry has already been criticized for demanding large deposits from companies bidding for the use of broadcast frequencies and for allocating generous grants for "socially important projects" with little transparency or input from media professionals (see, for example, the 2 November 2000 issue of "Obshchaya gazeta"). Video-International, the advertising firm Lesin founded in the early 1990s, already has a near monopoly on placing advertisements on Russia's main television networks. In 1998 and 2000, the Audit Chamber uncovered evidence of massive financial mismanagement at Russian Television while Lesin was a senior executive there.

Russia's new broadcasting system is not quite what Lesin originally envisioned, however. Last year, he advocated assembling the radio and television towers in a state-controlled company that would be partly privatized. Like ORT, the new company would be 51 percent state-owned, but private investors would provide the capital needed to upgrade the signal-distribution equipment. (The Media Ministry has estimated that such an upgrade could cost some $350 million to $400 million, "Vedomosti" reported on 14 August.) While some media said Lesin lobbied Putin unsuccessfully in favor of an ORT-style privatization, Lesin countered during a 13 August press conference that officials merely decided against such a plan in the short term, because the transmission facilities in their current state could not attract a good price, "Izvestiya" reported on 14 August. He did not rule out privatization at some time in the future.

The creation of a separate state enterprise to control the radio and television towers fueled speculation that private broadcasting companies will suffer under the new arrangement. Seeking to allay such fears, Lesin assured journalists on 13 August that all companies would have equal access to the broadcasting system. Yet almost in the same breath he said the most important aspect of Putin's decree was a guarantee that beginning in 2002, the state will subsidize signal distribution for "all-Russian" television networks to population centers with less than 200,000 people. Fees for signal distribution are among the largest expenses for Russian broadcasters, and "Kommersant" on 14 August described servicing small cities and towns as "the main headache" of major Russian television networks in years past.

The Media Ministry estimates that the new subsidies for signal distribution will total $35 million to $40 million annually, saving ORT roughly 75 percent on transmission fees and RTR around 65 percent, "Vedomosti" reported. Like ORT and RTR, the private network NTV is also designated an "all-Russian" television network, but an unnamed high-ranking government bureaucrat told "Vedomosti" that NTV could soon lose that status. So even if the new broadcasting service charges all television and radio companies the same fees for signal distribution, state-controlled ORT and RTR will still enjoy a huge financial edge over their rivals in the private sector.

At the regional level, private broadcasting companies may run into logistical problems. Some regional television and radio towers, though part of state-owned VGTRK, have set up private companies to which they have loaned equipment, according to "The Moscow Times" on 14 August. Those companies have leased the equipment to private television and radio companies. Putin's decree states that all the property of transmission facilities in VGTRK must be transferred to the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System, including property that is now rented to private companies, "Izvestiya" and "The Moscow Times" reported. It is too early to know how this point will be implemented, but private companies forced to renegotiate their rental contracts for broadcasting equipment could conceivably be forced off the air if the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System demands a higher price than they can afford.

Finally, and most importantly, the move to centralize control over Russia's radio and television towers has sparked new fears about political control over private broadcasting. The Glasnost Defense Foundation's digest of 20 August ( described Putin's decree as creating yet another "power vertical" in Russia, enabling the state to "give orders" to private broadcasters. Writing in "The Moscow Times" on 28 August, Yevgeniya Albats compared the new broadcasting system to the Soviet-era Gosteleradio monopoly, saying that "by virtue of its control over the delivery of national television signals, [the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System] has the power to manage the perception of reality for the entire country. Putin wants to make sure that there is no way for an unsanctioned alternative party or presidential candidate to emerge."

Putin has already taken steps to make sure that state-owned regional broadcasters adhere to his political line. In September 2000, he signed a decree giving the presidential representatives in Russia's seven federal districts the authority to appoint the chief executives of state-owned regional television networks. Now that he will be able to hire and fire the top official overseeing all the transmission facilities in Russia, Putin will indirectly gain new leverage over private radio and television stations.

Pavel Korchagin, one of the creators of the private network TNT and currently the executive director of the private network TV-6, told "Kommersant" that he does not expect the creation of a new broadcasting enterprise to make a great deal of difference. As before, the transmission towers will be in the hands of the state, and private companies will not be treated the same as state broadcasters. By way of example, Korchagin asserted that TV-6 was recently unable to transmit material from Khankala in Chechnya, ostensibly because the network was late in paying transmission fees. ORT's large debts for transmission fees have never disrupted that network's broadcasts, Korchagin noted.

Korchagin has a point, but the Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting System appears likely to strengthen the hand of Moscow officials seeking to cut off unsanctioned newscasts in any part of the country. During the 1999 parliamentary campaign, regional elites in some parts of the Russian Federation (including Primorskii Krai, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan) ordered transmission towers on their territory to switch off certain broadcasts from nationwide networks. During the next election cycle, it may be bureaucrats at the federal level who intervene to cut off transmissions of regional or local programs.

Laura Belin, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, has written extensively on the Russian media since 1995.