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Russia: Moscow TV Station Wins Reprieve

The auction of the broadcasting license of Moscow's independent television station was supposed to happen yesterday, and many observers expected that the station would lose its license. But the Media Ministry announced last night that the tender will be delayed until after a court appeal in June. Russian public television ORT, meanwhile, had its license extended another five years. RFE/RL's Floriana Fossato reports.

Prague, 25 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Moscow television station TV Tsentr has won a reprieve. The broadcasting license of TV Tsentr was to be auctioned off yesterday (Wednesday) in an open tender, but the Media Ministry has delayed the auction until a Moscow arbitration court hears an appeal in the case on June 16.

A tender for the broadcasting license of ORT did proceed yesterday. Only two companies were competing in that tender -- ORT itself and RTR Signal, a partially state-owned company.

ORT won, as most Russian media experts had assumed it would. They felt that ORT, which broadcasts to 98 percent of Russian territory, was up for tender merely to try to demonstrate that TV Tsentr was not being unfairly singled out.

Experts such as the director of the Moscow-based Center for Media and Law, Andrei Richter, told RFE/RL that the decision would be political in both cases.

The state owns 51 percent of ORT shares. But it is Kremlin insider and Duma deputy Boris Berezovsky who controls the network's editorial policy.

TV Tsentr, on the other hand, is financed and controlled by the Moscow city administration of Mayor Yury Luzhkov. Since its creation in 1997, TV Tsentr has primarily been a vehicle for Luzhkov's political ambitions -- ambitions that were thwarted in the recent presidential and parliamentary elections.

Luzhkov has accused Media Minister Mikhail Lesin of political discrimination over the tender. Just a few weeks ahead of the presidential vote this spring, Lesin announced (on February 29) that the licenses of ORT and TV Tsentr would not be automatically extended when they run out. Instead, a tender would be held.

Many had interpreted the move as an attempt to ensure that TV Tsentr and ORT would cover the presidential campaign in line with the Kremlin's wishes. Yet even after the Kremlin candidate, Vladimir Putin, won the March 26 vote, the Media Ministry decided to proceed with the tender.

Under a new media law passed last year, channels that have received two warnings from the Media Ministry for breaking rules must put their licenses up for auction when the licenses expire.

TV Tsentr's license was to expire last Saturday (May 20). And Lesin said TV Tsentr had been given two warnings -- one for coverage that was biased toward Luzhkov's Fatherland-All Russia faction, and one for changing its name without properly informing the authorities.

The charge of biased coverage was dismissed by a Moscow arbitration court last Friday. The warning on the failure of changing name had been dismissed earlier. The court ruled that, because the warnings were illegitimate, auctioning the license would be illegal.

But the ministry was proceeding with the tender anyway until it announced a postponement last night. The Media Ministry has appealed the court ruling and has delayed the tender until after the appeal is heard.

The decision not to proceed immediately with the tender suggests that the Media Ministry prefers to avoid the risk of a confrontation over TV Tsentr on such a shaky legal basis.

Experts have criticized the media law, saying it is so vaguely written that it gives the Media Ministry considerable leeway in deciding which licenses get auctioned. Analyst Richter agrees that the law is flawed.

"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."

The TV Tsentr frequency 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.

Commenting on the ministry's decision to delay the tender, the Internet newspaper SMI-dot-RU said that the future of TV Tsentr remains unclear. It said that the current legal uncertainty means that it will be the Kremlin that will decide the outcome of the standoff.

While the tender has been postponed until after the court appeal on June 16, TV Tsentr's license has been extended only through May 31. The question remains whether viewers on June 1 will be greeted with a blank screen.