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Russia: Regional Television Faces Challenges

At first glance, Russia's regional television scene appears vast and vibrant. Some 600 regional television companies have emerged, literally out of nowhere, since 1991. But the director of Internews, an NGO that trains broadcasters, says these regional stations tend to censor themselves by playing up to local authorities. RFE/RL correspondent Floriana Fossato reports.

Moscow, 7 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Manana Aslamazian is fighting an uphill battle. As the director of the non-governmental organization Internews Russia, she and her team have helped fund and train journalists and managers of hundreds of television stations across Russia. Since its inception in 1992, Internews has awarded grants to hundreds of start-up media projects and given free courses for regional journalists and managers.

Under her tutelage, regional news broadcasters have learned a more professional style, and many stations now include balanced news and socially oriented analysis. There is a great demand for professionally produced local news, as many Russian viewers have said the news from Moscow is too far removed from their lives.

Even government authorities recognize the power of regional news stations. Recently, Aslamazian joined the influential Russian Media Ministry commission that deals with licensing of news organizations at the national and regional level.

But even as regional television becomes more popular, it faces increased challenges from government -- both a general tightening of Kremlin control and pressure from regional governments. Aslamazian says Internews will have to meet these challenges by strengthening independent thinking among journalists. She says regional reporters are censoring themselves. "I am, possibly, influenced by a certain feeling that is in the air [these days] concerning the big television networks. I mean that everybody seems to have become cautious. Everybody seems to understand what can be broadcast and what shouldn't. Young journalists come to our courses and I start talking enthusiastically about the journalist's mission, about responsibility and so on. And they reply very calmly and extremely judiciously that such and such is impossible, such and such is forbidden, this will not get through, that will not be broadcast," she says.

Most local TV broadcasters, Aslamazian says, are sticking to what they consider a more traditional approach. This means they strive to emulate Russia's main television channel, ORT.

This partly state-controlled company alternates popular entertainment programs with heavily biased news and analyses, whose political orientation is often determined by its majority private shareholder, Boris Berezovsky.

Aslamazian says that teaching regional journalists how to correctly hold a camera and microphone is not enough. Even more important is to encourage them to think independently.

Last year, Internews, in collaboration with the Russian National Association of Television and Radio Broadcasters and the Russian Television Development Fund, organized a regional competition called News: Local Time. The contest consisted of nine rounds, held in different geographic regions, with a final round in Moscow. This year, the competition is being repeated in six regional rounds.

During every round, Russian journalists and other professionals analyze each other's broadcasts. A jury or Russian and foreign experts scrutinizes all the submissions and discusses the reasoning behind every decision. Participants also attend seminars on the rights and responsibilities of journalists.

One of the most controversial goals of the jury, says Aslamazian, has been to determine the best "reporting on power," which refers to reports on the work of political figures.

"The report on power is like an indicator. [We can see whether] in a certain region journalists are trying to analyze the way local authorities work, are trying to portray powers-that-be as they really are. When they aren't, we can see two extreme tendencies. [One is] never-ending praises, odes, etceteras, when the camera literally follows local authorities at any level all day long, emphasizing each meaningless move they make. The other tendency, on the contrary, is when a television company enjoys the governor's favor and therefore allows itself to engage in mudslinging at [his opponents] 24 hours a day," Aslamazian says.

This tendency, she says, has visibly increased over the last year. During the first competition, television reports were often less professional and there were more technical mistakes. But the content of the reports was often more spontaneous and unconventional. Now, the reports are better produced but less penetrating.

Some of the participants in the last round of regional television judging, which took place in the city of Kostroma last month, told RFE/RL that recent political developments have influenced regional television companies no less than nationwide ones. According to some participants, who asked to remain anonymous, it is clear that the rules of the game are changing.