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Russia: Is New English-Language Channel Meant For Information Abroad, Or Propaganda At Home?

Does the world only see the worst of Russia? Russia wants to shake off its "bear" image, and it is planning to do so by launching a new English-language satellite television station, Russia Today. Russian authorities, who are heavily subsidizing the project, announced today that Russia Today will start broadcasting before the end of the year in the United States, Europe, and some Asian countries. In Russia, the venture has inspired a mix of interest and apprehension, raising fears that the station will turn into a Kremlin propaganda machine.

Moscow, 7 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The government had long floated the idea of creating a Russian English-language television station aimed at improving Russia's standing abroad.

In 2001, then-Media Minister Mikhail Lesin lamented the negative coverage of Russia in the West and had declared the country must promote a positive image for itself if it wanted to avoid "always looking like bears."
"It will get ratings, success, and it will be watched if it provides extensive and varied information on what is happening in the world, on Russia's point of view on this, and is sufficiently many-sided."

Speaking at a press conference today, the head of the Federal Press and Mass Communications Agency, Mikhail Seslavinskii, agreed that the world needs to know more about Russia: "A big segment that exists in other developed countries was missing [in Russia] -- an account in English of what is happening now in the Russian Federation."

Seslavinskii said Russia Today could not have been created without help from the government, which has earmarked some $30 million to get the station off the ground.

But he was quick to dismiss claims that the Kremlin -- which has been slammed in the West for clamping down on independent media -- will have a say in the channel's editorial policy.

"I just can't image a special department somewhere in the corridors of power where people would sit and read the news in English, and cross things out with a red pen -- 'We say this, we don't say that, there is a grammatical mistake here and two commas missing there,'" Seslavinskii said. "The company will work on its own as an independent editorial office."

Russia Today's Editor in Chief is Margarita Simonyan, a 25-year-old former Kremlin reporter for the Rossiya state television station.

She says the new channel, which in the long run hopes to support itself through advertising, will offer a Russian view
on world news.

She vowed the channel will provide a platform of expression for all political forces, including opposition parties.

Simonyan concedes that competition for global English-language television is tough, but nonetheless has ambitious plans for the new station and its 300-strong team.

"Of course we understand that it is difficult to compete with the big companies in the world that exist on this market," Simonyan said. "But we have some things they don't have. I don't know if you do, but I don't know a single foreigner who wasn't surprised the first time he came to Russia. I think this happens precisely because Russia is not often portrayed in the way it looks when one arrives here. I would like to show my country the way I see it, the way my editorial team and the people with whom I work see it."

Some observers have welcomed the project as an opportunity to tell foreigners more about a country that largely remains an enigma abroad.

Yassen Zassourskii, the dean of the journalism department at Moscow State University, says the station has a good chance to attract viewers, provided it remains objective and does not focus too much on Russia.

"Much will depend on how the channel's service is organized," he said. "This is one thing I know: it will get ratings, success, and it will be watched if it provides extensive and varied information on what is happening in the world, on Russia's point of view on this, and is sufficiently many-sided."

Others, however, are not convinced.

Igor Yakovenko, the general-secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, is convinced Russia Today will become a propaganda tool for the Kremlin and is doomed to failure.

He considers the creation of the channel to be positive in itself, but condemns the fact that it will be broadcast within the country as well as abroad: "The presence of a state monopoly in the media makes attempts at improving Russia's external image problematic. The United States forbids its own state radio station to broadcast in the U.S., because it is bad for people's health. Russia has the opposite policy. They think propaganda should hit their own citizens first. This is a big problem."

Russia Today is set to begin broadcasting before the end of the year with the backing of the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency and television station Rossiya.

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