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Putting The TV On Mute

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An interesting opinion piece today by Vladimir Ryzhkov in the Moscow Times sees one of the last bastions of media freedom – Ren TV – looking like it may have to fight for its independence.  The increasingly popular station, the only one in Russia to offer a critical interpretation of the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam disaster and cover the Dissenter’s Marches in Moscow and St Petersburg, may be fettered by management ‘restructuring’.

Controlled by National Media Group, owned by Putin ally Yury Kovalchukm, Ren will have a new Director General and will find new lodgings alonside state-controlled RIA-Novosti and the tow-the-line RT.  Ryzhkov recollects Gazprom’s Media’s overhaul of NTV which followed similar lines: could this be another nail in the coffin of independent television?

Ren-TV is Russia’s last remaining national television channel that airs the critical views of members of the political opposition, who present facts and give opinions that are terribly “inconvenient” for the authorities. Not surprisingly, the station’s ratings have continued to grow over the past few years. Television viewers in search of objective and unbiased coverage regularly rate Ren-TV news and analytical programs as being some of the best in the country. Consistent with this, over the past several years the station’s news anchor, Mikhail Osokin, and the host of the weekly analytical show “Nedelya,” Marianna Maximovskaya, have regularly received the TEFI award, the most prestigious prize in the country’s television industry for journalistic quality and integrity. And it is precisely because these highly professional and talented journalists continue to investigate the abuses, weaknesses and ineffectiveness of government institutions and bureaucrats under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev that Ren-TV may be forced to change its editorial position.

National Media Group, which is owned by Putin’s friend and fellow St. Petersburg native Yury Kovalchuk, controls both Ren-TV and Petersburg Channel 5. Last week, National Media Group announced a restructuring of its top management. Ren-TV announced that its new general director will be Mikhail Kontserev and that it will soon move to new premises — the same building on Moscow’s Zubovsky Bulvar that is occupied by state-owned RIA-Novosti and the Kremlin-friendly RT cable news channel.

Most important, however, is the prospect that Ren-TV’s editorial policy will undergo a fundamental change. To be sure, there have been contradictory statements on this account: First, it was reported in Kommersant on Oct. 16 and in other media outlets that RT would will take over the news programming for Ren-TV. Two days later, that report was refuted by Ren-TV spokesman Anton Nazarov, who announced that Ren-TV would continue producing its own news and that RT would be offering only “technical assistance.”

Matters are far worse for Petersburg Channel 5. Staff members sent an open letter to Medvedev and Putin promising to stage a protest if the proposal to lay off 1,300 employees is carried out. Petersburg Channel 5 commands only 2 percent of the national television audience, but it broadcasts critical news and analysis, as well as a live political talk shows with independent analysts and opposition members as guest speakers.

Read the rest here.