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Russia: Political Motives Prompt TV License Tender

Broadcasting licenses of two of Russia's main television channels are up for grabs tomorrow (Wednesday). RFE/RL correspondent Floriana Fossato talks to a Moscow media analyst who says the move is widely seen in Russia as an attempt to strengthen the Kremlin's grip on the media.

Prague, 23 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Just a few weeks ahead of the presidential vote this spring, Russian Media Minister Mikhail Lesin announced (on February 29) that the licenses of two of Russia's main television channels would not be automatically extended when they run out. Instead, a tender would be held for the broadcasting frequencies of TV-Tsentr and ORT.

In Russia's highly politicized media environment, Lesin's announcement was initially interpreted as an attempt to ensure that TV Tsentr and ORT would cover the presidential campaign in line with the Kremlin's wishes. Yet following the victory of the Kremlin candidate, Vladimir Putin, in the March 26 vote, the Media Ministry decided to proceed with the tender.

Most Russian media experts say the tender is an excuse to strengthen the Kremlin's grip on the media. Andrei Richter, director of the Moscow-based Media and Law Center, is one of them.

"I think that the [ministry's final] decision in both cases I mentioned, Channel One [ORT] and Channel Three [TV Tsentr] will be politically motivated. Whether the whole idea of putting the frequencies on tender was politically motivated [is] probably yes, but not to that high degree."

TV Tsentr's creation in June 1997 was financed by the Moscow city administration of Mayor Yury Luzhkov. Since 1997, TV Tsentr has primarily been a vehicle for Luzhkov's political ambitions.

But failure in the most recent parliamentary and presidential elections meant a huge setback for Luzhkov and for "Fatherland-All Russia," the party he helped create last year.

Luzhkov now accuses Media Minister Lesin of political discrimination over the tender.

TV Tsentr's license expired three days ago (May 20), and until the last moment it was unclear whether viewers see a blank screen on Saturday. At the last minute, on Friday the ministry extended the license until May 31, after the tender.

ORT's license, meanwhile, expired on March 29 but has been extended until July. ORT's chances of preserving its license look far better than TV Tsentr's.

The state owns a majority 51 percent stake in ORT, whose broadcasts cover 98 percent of Russia. But it is Kremlin insider and Duma deputy Boris Berezovsky, the majority private shareholder in the network, who controls ORT's editorial policy.

ORT has been one of the main tools used by Kremlin spin-doctors to create and sustain Putin's popularity. During the presidential campaign, it constantly broadcast reports aimed at undermining opponents, including Luzhkov.

Most experts believe that ORT does not risk losing its broadcasting license, and that it is part of the tender simply to create the impression of fair competition.

Under a new media law passed last year, channels that have received at least two warnings from the Media Ministry for breaking rules must put their licenses up for auction when the licenses expire. Experts have criticized the new law, saying it is so vaguely written that it gives the Media Ministry considerable leeway in deciding which licenses get auctioned. Richter agrees:

"It is a very broad description and it may mean that, even if there were no warnings, but the ministry believes [that] there were violations of the conditions of licensing, they can still claim they have all legal grounds for putting the frequency on tender again."

TV Tsentr was reprimanded for coverage that was biased toward the Fatherland-All Russia faction, and for changing its name without properly informing the authorities. ORT was reprimanded for disparaging comments about Fatherland-All Russia, made by several leading ORT journalists.

The TV Tsentr frequency that is currently up for bid broadcasts to some 9 million viewers in Moscow. TV Tsentr also has a separate license, valid until 2002, to expand broadcasting to regions in the European part of Russia. Coverage so far includes some 20 regions.

Some of the allegations in the warnings against TV Tsentr have been dismissed by a Moscow arbitration court. Last Friday, the court ruled that auctioning of the license would be illegal.

But Media Ministry officials have made clear that the tender will take place as planned tomorrow.

Richter says that because the Media Ministry has already appealed the court decision, it cannot be enforced. The appeal will be heard in mid-June, and Russian law allows the tender to take place before then. Richter:

"From the legal point of view, the decisions of the arbitration court regarding the warnings of the ministry of the press do not exist. They do not exist from the legal point of view. If the ministry violates or ignores the Friday (May 19) decision of the Moscow Arbitration Court, there will be administrative charges against the ministry, followed probably by a fine. But that will be it. There will be no other measures against the ministry, because that is what the administrative court of Russia says."

Five companies will compete for TV Tsentr license. They are privately owned REN-TV, production company VID, another production company ATV, TV Tsentr itself, as well as one of its cable companies, Moskovia.

ATV, one of Russia's first independent production companies may withdraw at the last minute. Its managers have been reported to say that they don't want to be involved in a "farce."

VID produces popular prime-time programs for ORT. Its top manager, Aleksandr Lyubimov, has been linked with Berezovsky. VID was the first company to apply for the tender and its managers have said they are not concerned at Luzhkov supporters' protests of unfair treatment and violation of media freedom.

REN-TV's majority stake is owned by oil giant LUKoil. REN-TV already broadcasts in Moscow.

Only two companies are competing for ORT license. They are ORT itself and RTR-signal.