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What Will be the Fate of Russia's Last Independent TV Station? - 2002-03-29

Earlier this week, a group of Russian journalists, a former prime minister and some of the country's leading businessmen were granted a license to broadcast on one of Russia's nationwide television stations. The fight for the station has been going on for months and has raised questions about the state of the independent media in Russia.

A federal commission from the media ministry voted unanimously on Tuesday to give a broadcast license to a group of Russia's leading journalists who teamed up with a Kremlin-connected politician and some of the country's richest businessmen. The group was bidding against 12 other organizations for the right to broadcast on the channel.

The decision to award the license to a group with links to the government surprised few people.

The station, TV-6, was pulled off the air in January of this year after a minority shareholder asked a court to close the station, saying it was losing money. But many people viewed the action as an attempt by the Kremlin to silence the nation's last remaining independent nation-wide television station.

Masha Lipman is the deputy editor of the Yezhenedely Journal, a weekly magazine in Russia. She used to work for a magazine, Itogi, that was shut down last spring, many say due to Kremlin pressure. Ms. Lipman said the granting of a broadcast license to people with links to the government is a bad sign for the future of the free press in Russia.

"Over the past two years the Kremlin has been seeking to take nation-wide television stations under its control. It has succeeded. This is the end of it," Ms. Lipman said.

The saga behind this week's decision started a long time ago. The journalists with the winning bid used to work for a television station called NTV. It was viewed as independent and often critical of the government.

But almost a year ago, the journalists, led by general manager Yevgeny Kiselyov, left NTV after it was taken over by Gazprom, the state-controlled gas company. The team was later allowed to work at TV-6, until it too was closed in January.

After the closure of TV-6, many of the journalists decided to team with former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, and with some of the country's leading businessmen, to bid for the television frequency. Ms. Lipman fears this arrangement will inevitably lead to self-censorship.

"Yevgeny Kiselyov, the popular political anchor, and the leader of the team of TV-6, has admitted over the past couple of days that this was a compromise under pressure," she said.

Ms. Lipman said the pressure will be coming from the Kremlin, which is believed to support the group because the journalists will be under the supervision of Mr. Primakov. Mr. Primakov used to head the foreign intelligence service during Soviet times and has already said that he expects the journalists at TV-6 to practice self-censorship.

But many people argue that it is not accurate to describe the battle over TV-6 as simple independent journalists fighting government pressure. They say the journalists themselves must shoulder some of the guilt.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals in Moscow. Mr. Pankin criticized the TV-6 journalists for agreeing to go into business with Mr. Primakov.

"It dawned on many people that okay, these people are only concerned about keeping their faces on the air. I think that was a great disappointment," Mr. Pankin said.

Mr. Pankin agrees that with partners like Mr. Primakov and the group of businessmen behind the deal, the TV-6 journalists are sacrificing their objectivity. But he also points out that in the past the journalists have worked with other owners who used their television stations for political gain.

As a result, Mr. Pankin said this week's decision is not an indicator of the state of the free media in Russia. Unlike Masha Lipman, Mr. Pankin believes the journalists involved with the new station surrendered their independence long before this week's decision.

It has not yet been announced when the group of journalists will begin broadcasting on the channel, but many in Russia will be watching when they do.