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Russia: Former NTV, TV-6 News Team Wins Back Broadcast License

Russian Media Minister Mikhail Lesin announced yesterday that a team of journalists from what was once Boris Berezovsky's TV-6 television channel had won back the right to broadcast on the same frequency. The team, led by former TV-6 General Director Yevgenii Kiselev, is backed by a group of influential businessmen and industrialists, including former Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov, who now heads the Russian Chamber of Commerce. Some media analysts are questioning whether the new alliance between journalists and members of the country's financial elite will constrain Kiselev's editorial freedom.

Moscow, 28 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In May, a team of Russian journalists led by former TV-6 General Director Kiselev will return to television. This time, however, they will be supported not by the station's former owner, Boris Berezovsky, but by a new group of financial and political backers.

Yesterday (27 March), Russia's Federal Broadcasting Commission unanimously awarded a station's license to the Media-Socium group, a curious alliance of journalists and political and business heavyweights, including former Prime Minister Primakov and Arkadii Volsky, the head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.

The commission's decision did not come as a surprise. Earlier this week, local media were already predicting that Kiselev's team would be the favorite among the 13 candidates bidding for the channel. Some media reports suggested that Kiselev's team had a distinct advantage in having Kremlin-approved backers like Primakov. By the same token, they suggested, Primakov's presence may serve as a guarantee that Kiselev will be forced to temper his traditionally outspoken brand of news reporting.

Ruslan Gorevoe of the Glasnost Defense Foundation says he believes it will be difficult for Kiselev to control the channel's editorial policy. He told RFE/RL that Media-Socium comprises too many people with different points of view.

"It is very difficult to say what kind of channel it will be. There are too many different people grouped together on that team. On the one hand, you have Yevgenii Primakov. And on the other hand, you have Kiselev and his team, who have an opposing point of view from Primakov about what the [channel's] information policy should be. Moreover, you have Arkadii Volsky and different businessmen, and all of them have different opinions. So, so far it isn't clear how Kiselev is going to work with these different points of view."

Oleg Panfilov is the director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a watchdog branch of the Russian Union of Journalists. He says that if the new TV-6 changes its editorial policy, Russia will have lost its last chance to enjoy alternative news coverage.

"There is still some hope that the channel will continue to be as critical and acute as it used to be. But if [Kiselev's team] changes its editorial policy, I'm afraid that Russia will have no more chances at having an independent television channel."

After yesterday's announcement that Media-Socium had won the TV-6 tender, Primakov attempted to soften concerns about the channel's future editorial policy. Speaking on state television, he said the key task for the new team is to create a "real independent" television station that is free to operate without pressure from the state or the country's financial oligarchs.

Gorevoe says yesterday's announcement is a victory for opposition forces who disagree with Russian President Vladimir Putin's restrictive stance on free-press rights.

"Kiselev's victory is the defeat of Putin's antidemocratic information policy. I think it is the result of good political games organized by the anti-Putin opposition that are just beginning to take shape. I can't describe it as a real opposition movement, but these are people who are not pleased by Putin's attempts to drag Russia back into the 1970s. And [yesterday's decision] was Putin's first real defeat. But this is not the end of the games on either Putin's side or the opposition media's side."

Panfilov, however, does not agree. He compares yesterday's announcement to a theatrical show in which some of the characters have changed, but not the plot.

"Many [media] observers describe yesterday's competition as a show, and I agree with that. In every show you have leading characters, and in this show the protagonists haven't changed much. [The only change is that] old oligarchs have been replaced with new oligarchs, and now you have more oligarchs and it is well-known that these oligarchs are close to the Kremlin. Moreover, you now have two main characters -- [Primakov and Volsky] -- who always have worked for the government and for the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union."

The closure in January of TV-6 was the second blow dealt Kiselev and his journalists in less than a year. Last April, they left the private NTV channel after it was taken over by state-dominated natural-gas monopoly Gazprom, in a move condemned by observers as an attack on press freedom in Russia. The journalists then found shelter in Boris Berezovsky's TV-6, but their respite was short-lived. After complaints from a minority shareholder -- oil giant Lukoil -- that TV-6 was insolvent, the station was closed. That gave the Kremlin de facto control over all the major Russian channels for the first time since the Soviet era.