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Media Matters: December 16, 2005

16 December 2005, Volume 5, Number 20
By Robert Parsons

Russia began broadcasting a new 24-hour English-language satellite TV news channel on 10 December, aimed at presenting a more positive image of Russia abroad. The channel, which is called Russia Today, can be seen throughout Asia, Europe, and the United States. According to its directors, the channel will aim to reflect Russia's position on the main international issues of the day and seek to inform viewers about Russian life.

After months of preparation and not a few false starts, Russia Today is set to join the world of international television broadcasters. The idea -- to present a more positive image of Russia around the world.

The new team of 300 plus -- which includes 72 foreign journalists, many of them with experience in major British and American networks -- will have to work with a comparatively modest budget by the standards of its international rivals like CNN and the BBC.

The channel says it has raised its $30 million start-up capital with loans secured from commercial banks.

The news director, 25-year-old Margarita Simonyan, said the channel aims to be a foreign news broadcaster with a Russian slant. "Of course we understand that it is difficult to compete with the big companies in the world that exist on this market. But we have some things they don't have," Simonyan said. "I would like to show my country the way I see it, the way my editorial team and the people with whom I work."

She portrayed 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 English-language service of Radio Moscow in Soviet times -- but state propaganda nevertheless.

But the head of the Russian Federal Press and Mass Communications Agency, Mikhail Seslavinskii, brushes such doubts aside. "I just can't image a special department somewhere in the corridors of power where people would sit and read the news in English, and cross things out with a red pen -- 'We say this, we don't say that, there is a grammatical mistake here and two commas missing there,'" Seslavinskii said. "The company will work on its own as an independent editorial office."

And Seslavinskii is not alone in defending the new channel's standards of integrity. Its foreign journalists say they have been under no more pressure than in Britain or the United States to conform.

Anna Kachkaeva of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who is based in Moscow and also teaches at Moscow University's Faculty of Journalism, is another who thinks the new channel will maintain its independence from the state.

"If there is major interference from the Kremlin, then what's the point of having such a channel? We've got enough channels like that within Russia," Kachkaeva said. "So, if there is any interference, it will probably be more precise, more considered and more sensible, because the main newsmakers and stars are, as a rule, people with a democratic outlook who also speak English."

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 one-sided portrayal of Russia to the outside world. Lesin admits, too, that Russia needs to do more to polish up is image abroad. Otherwise, he said, "We'll always end up looking like bears." Russia Today will attempt to set the record straight.

By Julie A. Corwin

Just when it seemed impossible for Russian television to become any less controversial, the new owners of REN-TV announced on 28 November that they were pulling journalist Olga Romanova off the air for a three-month period.

REN-TV is considered by many to be the last remaining independent television stations with a national reach.

Romanova has vowed to fight the station's decision, saying she will take the case to court. At a news conference in Moscow on 29 November, she said that she wanted to create a precedent and see if the law can be enforced in Russia, AFP reported.

"The management of REN-TV is knowingly ignoring Russian law on journalists' rights. They refuse to understand that a journalist...has responsibility towards society, not just to management," she said.

Romanova's hiatus follows an incident on 24 November when armed security guards prevented her from entering the studio to host her program, "24 Hours."

Romanova told RFE/RL on 25 November that prior to the showdown, REN-TV General Director Aleksandr Ordzhonikidze had pulled two recent stories for what she considered were political reasons.

She said one of the censored segments featured an investigation into the involvement of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's son in a traffic accident in which a woman was killed. Romanova complained to Ekho Moskvy on the air about the alleged censorship on 23 November -- the day before she was barred from entering her studio.

The management of REN-TV has denied that political considerations motivated its decision to cancel Romanova's program.

Ordzhonikidze told Ekho Moskvy on 28 November that Romanova's dismissal should not have been unexpected for her, since "for the past month, we have been thinking about how to raise the ratings of our programs." The general director also said that he could not provide greater detail about all that was happening at the station because to do so would violate corporate ethics.

His remarks suggest that since Romanova aired her grievances with company management publicly, she could be held liable for violating for violating company ethics.

Employment Violations

A similar charge was levied at Leonid Parfenov, a popular NTV host, who was fired in June 2004 for violating his employment agreement, which obligated him "to support the company leadership."

Parfenov had complained when the channel decided not to air an interview with the widow of former acting Chechen President Zemlikhan Yandarbiev on his show "Namedni." That show was cancelled despite having high ratings.

The move against Romanova has not surprised many Russian media watchers. Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations told RFE/RL: "After the ownership of the television station changed, I watched especially closely all of Olga Romanova's programs, and with each program, it seemed to me that [the program] would be yanked off the air at any moment," Panfilov said.

Panfilov also said that only REN-TV -- and not the other national television stations -- showed the 4 November march of some 3,000 people from ultra-nationalist groups, such as Pamyat and Russian National Unity, through the streets of central Moscow.

Ownership Change

Some have suggested that the Kremlin -- albeit indirectly -- is putting pressure on REN-TV.

Last July, the electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems (EES) sold its 70 percent stake in REN-TV to the steel producer Severstal. Severstal in turn sold a 35 percent stake to Russia's fourth-largest oil producer Surgutneftegaz last September. The German RTL Group owns a 30 percent stake in REN-TV.

When Surgutneftegaz made its purchase, Aleksei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies suggested that Severstal served as a "political middleman." According to Makarkin, transferring shares directly from EES to Surgutneftegaz, considered close to the St. Petersburg "siloviki" in Putin's entourage, would have appeared to be official pressure on REN-TV's editorial policy.

Romanova, however, has disputed claims that the Kremlin had a hand in the station pulling her program. She told "The Moscow Times" on 28 November that Ordzhonikidze is "simply doing the best he can to please the Kremlin."

In the meantime, Romanova is supposed to use the next three months to develop a new program. If she follows in the footsteps of fellow television journalist Parfenov, she will switch to a format that is less controversial with the authorities and less popular with viewers, such as documentaries.

In an exclusive interview given to RFE/RL's Russian Service, Yelena Fedorova explained her reasons for submitting her resignation as information service editor at Russia's REN-TV.

She told RFE/RL interviewer Anna Kachkaeva that her decision was motivated primarily by censorship on the part of the television station's management and its efforts to prevent her and fellow journalists from participating in editorial decisions.

Fedorova's action followed the resignation of REN-TV news anchorwoman Olga Romanova, whose news program "24" was shut down in late November. Romanova has claimed that the move came after she unsuccessfully attempted to air news segments that may have been frowned upon by the Kremlin.

REN-TV General Director Aleksandr Ordzhonikidze has denied that political considerations motivated the station's decision to cancel Romanova's program, saying the move was part of an effort to improve ratings.

REN-TV changed hands this year after the electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems (EES) sold its 70 percent stake in the company to the steel producer Severstal, which in turn sold a 35 percent stake to Russia's fourth-largest oil producer, Surgutneftegaz, in September. The Luxembourg-based RTL Group owns a 30 percent stake in REN-TV.

Prior to the deal, REN-TV had been widely considered the last remaining independent television station with a national reach. The station's new owners had said there would be no change in editorial policy.

RFE/RL: Lena, as far as I know, you have decided to leave the company. Why did you choose to leave? Have the stockholders and managers all been informed?

Yelena Fedorova: With my statement, I informed [General Director Aleksandr] Ordzhonikidze. I have not informed the stockholders, but I have no doubt that Mr. Ordzhonikidze will do that himself. I find that in the current situation it is impossible for me to work in our company. Things that are happening right now in [REN-TV's] information service [that] can directly lead to the disintegration of that which I have devoted eight years of my life. The people who have been sent to work here do not understand anything about information -- they have never worked in television -- and these are the people who monitor decisions concerning content and policy.

People who have worked to create this service -- including [deputy information service editor in chief] Sergei Taranov and myself -- have been barred from decision making. This has an immediate impact on our product. I don't want to be held accountable for this kind of product anymore. I don't want to be responsible for the missing stories or skewed content. This is why I am making this difficult decision.

RFE/RL: Has Mr. Ordzhonikidze somehow responded to this?

Fedorova: No, not at all. We have a modified means of communication with the company administration. We now communicate strictly through the chancellery. I have submitted my resignation due to my inability to fulfill my professional duty, but there has not yet been any response.

RFE/RL: Can you say what exact measures or actions taken by your superiors -- I understand that this is [Editor in Chief Ilya] Kuzmenkov and [Deputy Editor in Chief Nikolai] Popov -- forced you to do this?

Fedorova: Basically, we are barred from decision making as far as content is concerned. All decisions of this sort are made by Mr. Kuzmenkov and Mr. Popov. In addition to this, on Sunday [4 December], they cancelled a story on the elections in Kazakhstan. I cannot condone this. This is an issue that is becoming common practice -- stories are simply being taken off the air. As soon as Mr. Kuzmenkov and Mr. Popov came into our company, our viewers did not immediately learn that Olga Romanova's show ["24"] would no longer be featured on our channel. Instead, they got this from the radio or from other channels. I cannot condone this and this is why I've made my decision.

RFE/RL: Have you received any invitations or proposals from other companies or media?

Fedorova: I have received some proposals from other media, but first I would like to take a step back and take a look around. That is, to consider whether it really is possible for me to continue working with the news.

RFE/RL: What do you suppose will happen to the information service, and will who head it if you are released?

Fedorova: Mr. Ordzhonikidze made the last set of appointments based on personal loyalty and friendship. With the aforementioned gentlemen at the helm, I cannot expect much good to come out of the situation.

RFE/RL: If Mr. Ordzhonikidze and Mr. Kuzmenkov ask you to retain your post and you develop some sort of rules concerning their noninterference in your personal duties, would you stay?

Fedorova: I have already received a document summarizing the post of "information editor," in which it stated that all decisions, including personnel, are made by Mr. Kuzmenkov. Since Thursday morning [1 December], I have been asking for a set of instructions for my job: what rights and what responsibilities do I have? What are my powers? Unfortunately, I have yet been unable to obtain this mysterious document. I have doubts that Mr. Ordzhonikidze and Mr. Kuzmenkov have any desire to negotiate with me. The past week, during which I have worked to try to make sense of this situation, has only shown that they are quite unwilling to do so.

RFE/RL: How have your colleagues responded to your statement?

Fedorova: Terribly -- my colleagues are shocked. You see, we all worked together. This was a closely knit, self-made group of people who came here seven years ago and worked together in conditions that were not remotely comparable with any state channel. We, or at least the majority of us, are of one mindset, which is why people are devastated.

RFE/RL: Could this be the result of a very strong emotional reaction, both to the issue with Olga Romanova and to the removal of stories? You know very well that there are different managers out there and you've had to deal with conflicts in the past as well. Perhaps here you simply could not find a common language with your new management.

Fedorova: I do not exclude the possibility. It is another story, however, that for two months I have tried to negotiate and seek out a compromise solution, but I think the aggravation accumulated. In any case, I prefer dialogue to any sort of confrontation, and I always tried to go for dialogue -- even in the story with Olga Romanova, when we discussed whether she would return on air or not. It seems to me that management has to be on the side of the viewers, on the side of common sense, in the face of, perhaps, hard feelings and personal ambitions. In other words, management should have gone for negotiations. Unfortunately, this did not happen. In the end, we lost, and so did our viewers. In this situation, I am not as concerned for myself and my own ambitions, as much as I am for the fact that Olga Romanova's show has disappeared from [REN-TV's] lineup. This, I think, is the biggest loss.

In an exclusive interview given to RFE/RL's Russian Service, REN-TV Editor in Chief Ilya Kuzmenkov discussed the wave of resignations that has hit the Russian television channel this week.

News anchorwoman Olga Romanova submitted her resignation on 5 December. Information Service Editor Yelena Fedorova, Editor Olga Shorina, and program producer Tatyana Kolokova quickly followed suit.

Kuzmenkov said the resignations of the high-profile employees will certainly have an impact on the television channel, but that they made their own decisions. He also defended and explained REN-TV's editorial policies.

The resignations come in the wake of the REN-TV's decision to shut down the news program "24." Romanova, who anchored the program, claimed it was shut down after she unsuccessfully attempted to air news segments that may have been frowned upon by the Kremlin. Fedorova told RFE/RL in a 5 December interview that her own decision was primarily motivated by censorship on the part of the television station's management and its efforts to prevent her and fellow journalists from participating in editorial decisions.

REN-TV General Director Aleksandr Ordzhonikidze has denied that political considerations motivated the station's decision to cancel Romanova's program, saying the move was part of an effort to improve ratings.

REN-TV changed hands this year after the electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems (EES) sold its 70 percent stake in the company to the steel producer Severstal, which in turn sold a 35 percent stake to Russia's fourth-largest oil producer, Surgutneftegaz, in September. The Luxembourg-based RTL Group, which is part of the Germany-based Bertelsmann AG, owns a 30 percent stake in REN-TV.

Prior to the deal, REN-TV had been widely considered the last remaining independent television station with a national reach. The station's new owners had said there would be no change in editorial policy.

RFE/RL: Ilya, you have called Yelena Fedorova's decision to leave "expected." Does this mean that you are satisfied with her decision and that of her colleagues?

Ilya Kuzmenkov: You see, the first day when I had my meeting with the collective, I said I wanted to work with everyone at the channel. This has not changed to this day. I have not met everyone yet, but I have met most, and I must say, we have a very strong team right now, and I do not plan to bring in outsiders.

RFE/RL: So if you are prepared to cooperate, are [you] ready to offer [Fedorova] to stay, or are you not planning to do this?

Kuzmenkov: We discussed this last week. She submitted her statement. This, essentially, answers all questions.

RFE/RL: Ilya, do you sense any guilt or responsibility for her decision and for the decision of other people to leave the channel?

Kuzmenkov: Guilt?

RFE/RL: Yes.

Kuzmenkov: No. I don't feel any guilt.

RFE/RL: Who is going to lead the Information Service?

Kuzmenkov: I don't think Fedorova will be replaced by any one person. Her responsibilities -- which, I believe, were too concentrated for one job -- will be distributed among the current employees.

RFE/RL: In one interview, you mentioned that REN-TV must have a clearly defined position and have common sense. I don't think this entails the removal of certain stories, like the one about Kazakhstan, as we heard from Yelena Fedorova on [RFE/RL's "Time of Liberty" program on 5 December].

Kuzmenkov: We did have a piece on the elections in Kazakhstan.

RFE/RL: So why did you remove it?

Kuzmenkov: What do you mean? It aired.

RFE/RL: So, Yelena lied to us?

Kuzmenkov: I don't know what she said, so I can't comment on that, but I can tell you that there indeed was a piece on Kazakhstan.

RFE/RL: She publicly declared this. Perhaps it was removed from the European broadcasts?

Kuzmenkov: I'll have to look at our broadcasts and then answer this question.

RFE/RL: This is interesting. For the second week already, I have been communicating with people from your channel, and nobody is sure about this. Who is it that makes decisions about taking stories off the air? Can you tell me who makes these decisions? Who made these decisions in the previous weeks and who will make those decisions today should circumstances arise? I have no particular reason to trust Yelena Fedorova.

Kuzmenkov: How do you imagine this "removal of stories"? Suppose there is a program. Then what? Somebody comes along, presses a button and stories disappear?

RFE/RL: I know perfectly well how this happens. I have seen this happen before. The editor in chief comes along and says, "This isn't airing." They do this on the First, Second, and Third Channels.

Kuzmenkov: The editor in chief doesn't come when the story has already been done. The main editor participates in the discussion and planning of programs and stories. It starts with people submitting pitches. The editor in chief, together with his team, discusses and selects those stories, which will be featured in some program or another, depending on accessibility, relevance, etc.

RFE/RL: I understand that. Nevertheless, a week ago, when this story began developing, somebody had to have made the decision to not feature the story about [Defense] Minister [Sergei] Ivanov's son [who was involved in a car accident in which a woman was killed].

Kuzmenkov: It is hard for me to comment on this, because I was not working at the channel yet. I believe it was omitted in the editing process that I described.

RFE/RL: Is another part of the editing process the setting up of security guards around the studio? Apparently, no one makes those decisions either -- they just conjure themselves up from thin air.

Kuzmenkov: Again, I can only talk about that which I was witness to. I was not present when these incidents took place. As I understand it, Olga Romanova has taken a legal approach to the matter, the results of which we will soon learn.

RFE/RL: As a self-proclaimed "ultraliberal", what do you perceive as the job of professional, quality broadcasting?

Kuzmenkov: You are talking about the publication in "Nezavisimaya [gazeta]", right?

RFE/RL: Yes.

Kuzmenkov: Back then, we were all anti-Soviets. I was a journalist during those first revolutionary years in 1991-93. It is basically anti-sovkism (Eds. note: "sovok" is a derogative expression for "Soviet person" -- implying unrefined, irresponsible behavior). There is a line between being a sovok and being modern. Those old political formulas still define what we stand for and what we are against. Social-liberalism, ultra-liberalism, right-liberalism? In the context of the existing political infrastructure, these traditional definitions, as we can see from the American and European political culture, are not entirely precise. You cannot say "liberal" and thus wholly define your political stance. Today, liberals are both in the core of the opposition and in the heart of the government system. The same can be said about any traditional, political doctrine. For me, right now, the antithesis is that lying is sovok-like, and objectivity is modern; obscurity is sovok-like, and transparency is modern.

RFE/RL: I'm taking you on your word. This means that if you start controlling the information policy of the channel, stories like the one about Ivanov's son will be featured.

Kuzmenkov: Yes, if they meet these criteria.

RFE/RL: So, what are the criteria? To tell about a guy killing a woman ? Doesn't that fit?

Kuzmenkov: This information was in REN-TV news, in last week's coverage.

RFE/RL: To this end, are you satisfied with Marianna Maksimovskaya's program, "Nedelya" [Eds. A REN-TV political show.]

Kuzmenkov: Absolutely. I believe it sets a certain standard -- a very high standard of quality.

RFE/RL: So, the key soviet-anti-Soviet, obscure-transparent would show Maksimovskaya, not a sovok, right?

Kuzmenkov: Yes, I think so. It is a good example.

RFE/RL: Could you tell us who invited you to work for REN-TV?

Kuzmenkov: Aleksandr Ordzhonikidze, the general director.

RFE/RL: He was the only one?

Kuzmenkov: Yes.

RFE/RL: Have you known him for a long time?

Kuzmenkov: We studied in university together and we share some common views.

RFE/RL: Why does Mr. Ordzhonikidze have such a fear of publicity?

Kuzmenkov: He's not afraid of publicity.

RFE/RL: Yet, he has somehow delegated this responsibility to you.

Kuzmenkov: Well, I think it is logical. The job of a general director is general management, including administrative and financial decisions. The editor in chief is the one who forms information policy and this, generally, is what the public is interested in. This is why, I think, in a week or so I will try to gather all the journalists who are interested in TV journalism.

RFE/RL: Have the shareholders somehow responded to the fact that four employees --- four leading anchors -- have left the company, or are they uninterested in this?

Kuzmenkov: I don't communicate with the shareholders, so I don't have any comment on this. Issues concerning employees and the like are the concern of the general director and the editor in chief, which is my job. I don't think the shareholders have anything to do with this as far as public comments are concerned.

RFE/RL: I would think that in terms of reputation, when the main faces of the channel, as well as the director of the Information Service, leave, it has a significant impact on the company.

Kuzmenkov: It certainly does, but in this case, it is their own decision.