The diet of news in this test run of the new channel is almost entirely foreign -- the United Nations summit in New York, bombings in Baghdad, and the election campaign in Afghanistan. The announcement by former Russian
Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov that he intended to run in the next presidential elections was given far less attention.
But, as 25-year-old news director Margarita Simonyan told RFE/RL, that's because the main purpose of the channel is to be a foreign news broadcaster -- albeit with a Russian slant.
"We're going to do international news and are trying to do a Russian angle on them, trying to show what impact international affairs have on Russia and we will also try to show interesting things about Russia, what is happening here, documentaries, interesting people and places, something that might be new to our audience," Simonyan said.
She portrays Russia Today as a sort of Russian BBC, complete with its own board of governors and independent broadcasting standards. Doubters suspect that it's more likely to become just another mouthpiece of the state -- slicker certainly than the ponderous, heavily accented Radio Moscow of Soviet times -- but propaganda nevertheless (see "Russia: Is New English-Language Channel Meant For Information Abroad, Or Propaganda At Home?").
Since Vladimir Putin became president of the Russian Federation in 2000, the burgeoning independence of commercial television has been nipped in the bud. State-run television rarely carries reports that are even remotely critical of the government.
Russia Today is the brainchild of former Information Minister Mikhail Lesin and Putin's press spokesman, Aleksei Gromov. They say they've grown tired of watching foreign journalists present a distorted and biased portrayal of Russia to the outside world. Russia Today will attempt to set the record straight. Lesin has said Russia needs to start polishing its image. Otherwise, he said, "we'll always look like bears."
The channel belongs to the state news agency, RIA-Novosti, but it has raised its start up capital of $30 million from loans secured from commercial banks. It claims also to have employed 72 foreign journalists, many of them with experience in major networks like the BBC, CNN, and ABC. Among them, British-born Mike Alexander, who has worked in television in the United States and Britain for over 20 years. Now news editor of the new channel, he says he is under no pressure to censor the output.
"I have seen absolutely nothing so far that does not allow me to operate as a normal journalist," he told RFE/RL.
Truth be told, though, the staff at Russia Today should have been celebrating rather more than a 24-hour technical rehearsal. It had been planned that the channel would begin broadcasting this month -- perhaps even in time for President Putin's address to the UN summit -- but an accumulation of glitches has set back the starting date. Simonyan said the launch is now scheduled for the end of the year.
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