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New Global TV Venture to Promote Russia

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Russia's state-owned news agency, RIA-NOVOSTI, has surprised media watchers by announcing plans to launch a new, 24-hour global television news channel to improve Russia's image abroad. Russia Today is to hit the airwaves late this year and is being hailed by organizers as a new Russian CNN. But several analysts say the venture will amount to nothing more than Kremlin propaganda.

Russia's domestic television media, which consists of only two government-sponsored tv channels, already suffers from a credibility problem. Enter plans for Russia Today, whose organizers say it will cover international news with a, "Russian outlook" and the issue takes on a whole new dimension.

With initial funding amounting to $30 million, the station hopes to employ 500 people to prepare broadcasts for view in the United States, Europe, several Asian countries, and many of the former Soviet Republics.

Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Russia Today TV, a 24-hour, English-language satellite news channel funded by Russian state
The newly-named Director General of Russia Today, 25-year-old Margarita Simonyan, hails from the Kremlin press corps. She says the station aims to counter, what she calls, the Anglo-Saxon domination of global television news.

Ms. Simonyan says organizers also hope it will change the negative view many foreigners have of Russia as a nation lacking law and order. But her more immediate job has been to try to deflect the negative coverage generated inside Russia, following recent word of the channel's launch.

Ms. Simonyan tells VOA that it is difficult to answer critics who, she says, have already made up their minds that Russia Today will not be editorially independent of its Kremlin sponsors.

Wait and see, was all she said.

She also said a public council to oversee editorial independence was in the works. But she offered no other concrete details on real or suggested safeguards to ensure the station's editorial integrity.

Chief Editor Anton Nosik, of a major English-language computer internet site in Russia (Mos-News.com), is one critic of the channel who is skeptical. Mr. Nosik says the idea smacks of Soviet-style propaganda campaigns, dating as far back as Joseph Stalin.

"This channel is not created as a response to any existing demand," he said. "Nobody has ever measured existing demand for such sort of coverage in the world. And same as 70 years ago, the demand simply is not there."

Mr. Nosik holds out little hope the channel will broadcast anything other than what the Kremlin wants to see which, in his view, is a Russian success story.

"We expect to see that life in Russia [is] improved, that [the] Russian government is doing all in its power, that [the] Russian economy is healthy and sound, that Russia is a good place for investment, and that Russia is the most progressive country in the world and that Russia is the hope of all progressive mankind," he added. "That is the ancient Soviet propaganda picture that has been recreated by the current authorities because they sincerely believe in it and want the rest of the world to believe in it as well."

But the question on the minds of many analysts in Russia is, will the public buy it? Masha Lipman of Moscow's Carnegie Center, thinks not.

"There is a general sense in the world, among those who are interested in Russia - media, analysts, students of Russia - that in Russia, the state once again is heavily centralized and all decision-taking is concentrated in the Kremlin and the Kremlin uses all the remaining institutions to further its own purposes," said Ms. Lipman. "And so it will be assumed that this channel too, of course, is only launched to further Kremlin goals. So, I think whoever is watching it for analytical purposes, will watch it with suspicion, trying to see signs of the Kremlin's influence, or censorship, or the Kremlin's interest behind it."

Analyst Lipman says she believes Russia's global reputation is determined to a great extent by Russia's political performance, as well as by its political failures. Among the latter, she cites the recent corruption trial and subsequent sentencing of former Yukos Chief Executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky as perhaps the most damaging for Russia's image abroad.

Ms. Lipman also questions why Russian officials do not consider attacking the source of the image problem, the problems themselves, rather than trying to re-make Russia's image.

But Ivan Zasoursky, a professor of Journalism at Moscow State University, says Russia-Today could be beneficial in a most unforeseen way.

Mr. Zasoursky says Russians have a long tradition of airing problems in public. And in this sense, he says if the station seeks to address issues like the dismantling of any viable political opposition in the country, or growing domestic capital flight, then, Russia Today could be a viable media outlet. But like the other analysts, he is waiting to see what, in fact, Russia Today delivers when it begins broadcasting this September.

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