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For Russian television shows, independence is the exception

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MOSCOW - In a small television studio in central Moscow crammed with cameras and video gear, anchorman Andrei Norkin recently sat at his desk and began what in Russia is a politically sensitive exercise. He delivered his afternoon newscast.

Increased defense spending, he reported, is leading to more accidents during military exercises. The nation's politically sensitive courts, he predicted, would allow prosecutors to extend the custody of a businessman of keen interest to the Kremlin. And he delivered a report critical of a Soviet-era anachronism - a city law requiring residents to hold permits to live in Moscow.

If he were working for a Russian network, Norkin might have thought twice about his controversial topics and skeptical tone. Every domestic broadcaster is owned or indirectly controlled by the Russian government. But Norkin, reading his newscast for Ekho-TV, does not face the same pressures as his colleagues.

Ekho-TV's newscasts are fed over the Internet to a New York-based satellite network called RTVi, owned by the fugitive Russian financier Vladimir A. Gusinsky. And while 10 million Russian-speaking viewers tune in each day, all of them live abroad, mostly in Britain, Israel and the United States. The show is not available on Russia's airwaves.

That viewers here would have to travel abroad to watch independent national television news demonstrates just how far the Kremlin has gone in reining in the media over the past 3 1/2 years. It also hints how much further President Vladimir V. Putin might be prepared to go to help his allies in parliamentary elections in December and to win re-election himself in the presidential contest in March.

Critics say Putin's government has also tried to silence foes in other centers of power, including academia and business.

But the state's headlock on the news media, 12 years after the fall of Soviet communism, is the most vivid evidence that in Russia, bad habits die hard. All six national television networks are owned outright by the Kremlin or owned or controlled by its allies.

"This is a real change in Russia," said Yasen Zasursky, head of the journalism faculty at Moscow State University. "During these past few years we have lost all our private national channels."

Some of the networks were already state-owned as part of the legacy of communism. The RTR and Kultura networks are government channels run directly by state agencies. TV Center is owned by the city of Moscow and controlled by the mayor, Yuri M. Luzhkov.

Forty-nine percent of the ORT network is owned by small investors, including journalists, but the majority stake is held by Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly.

Norkin once worked for NTV, then the most important of Gusinsky's television and publishing properties. In Russia's 2000 presidential elections, Gusinsky backed one of Putin's opponents. His channel, which attracted some of the most talented journalists, also showed coverage critical of Russia's war in Chechnya, and regularly lampooned Putin in a satirical puppet show.

Gusinsky soon found himself the target of police raids and investigations. He fled Russia for Spain in 2001, pursued by prosecutors. Later that year, Gazprom took control of NTV. Ekho-TV is the remnant of Gusinsky's former media empire.

The NTV takeover left only one independent television network, TV-6, owned by another Putin critic, expatriate billionaire Boris A. Berezovsky. Most of the NTV news team fled to TV-6 and continued their work. But in January 2002, a lawsuit by minority shareholders with strong ties to the Kremlin forced TV-6 into bankruptcy, using a law that had never before been invoked.

The government then agreed to let friendly tycoons buy the station, rename it TVS and let the old TV-6 news team run it. But the deal was troubled from the start, and the station suffered from low ratings and poor ad revenue. In June, the government again pulled the plug in the middle of a broadcast. TVS is now a government-owned, all-sports channel.

RIA Novosti, Russia's government news agency, recently boasted that the Ministry of Press and Information had issued more than 2,000 broadcast licenses since 1991. Russians, the agency noted, are free to watch foreign television if they can receive it, and thousands of new newspapers and magazines are being published.

But most of Russia's 144 million citizens, scattered across 11 time zones, live beyond the reach of national newspapers. Local periodicals and television channels are often controlled by local politicians. And the overwhelming majority of the population relies heavily on the television networks for their national news.

"In the Kremlin, they believe that to achieve some real results is possible only if you are in the control of the mass media organs," said Norkin, the Ekho-TV newscaster.

In Ekho-TV's year of operation, the authorities here have not interfered directly with its newsgathering, treating it much like any other foreign news bureau. But Norkin says that may be changing.

Two years ago, a Spanish court rejected a request by Russian authorities to extradite Gusinsky on charges that he had pocketed a $250 million loan from Gazprom. Interpol has also declined to issue a warrant for him. But last month, Greek immigration officials arrested Gusinsky, Ekho-TV's financial backer, at the Athens airport at the request of Russian authorities.

Russian prosecutors have told reporters that they plan to file a formal extradition request with Greek authorities next week. The Russian press has been filled with speculation over the motive for the renewed interest in his prosecution. Norkin is convinced that he knows.

"The fact that Gusinsky was detained can be considered as a form of pressure on our company," he said. "The Kremlin is not happy with the fact they call it 'Gusinsky's News.' They are not happy that 'Gusinsky's News' sticks its nose into Russian problems."

Specifically, several analysts said, Gusinsky's foes in the government may be concerned over efforts by Ekho-TV to broadcast within Russia. A few months ago, Norkin said, he talked with regional broadcasters in Nizhny Novgorod, Samara and Tomsk who want to carry his programs. Gusinsky's arrest has not affected those negotiations.

"No one has refused to work with us," Norkin said. "But it is impossible to say how it will develop. I don't exclude the possibility that some regional companies will get scared and decide it's better not to deal with us under the circumstances."

Meanwhile, Ekho-TV's coverage continues to follow an independent course. The company recently hired two of NTV-TV's best-known personalities. political satirist Viktor Shenderovich and commentator Vladimir Kara-Murza.

Shenderovich said in an interview that he has been blacklisted from Russian television broadcasting. When he asked a Russian network executive for a job, he says, the executive replied: "Before the elections? Don't even think about it."

After he left TVS but before he was hired by Ekho-TV, Kara-Murza supported himself with a job in the boiler room of a heating plant.

Ekho-TV's situation echoes that of the publishing industry in the Soviet era, when all periodicals legally sold within the Soviet Union were owned by the state and the only independent, critical Soviet news was published abroad. Ekho-TV is the heir to those emigre publications.

Gusinsky is not the only Russian billionaire to feel pressured by the Kremlin. In July, prosecutors launched a series of investigations of Yukos Oil executives on charges ranging from fraud to homicide. Billionaire Mikhail B. Khordokovsky, the chief of Yukos, has used his vast wealth to bankroll opposition political parties. As a result, he says, his company has become a target.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, an expert on Russia's business elite with the Sociology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says the evidence suggests that the Kremlin is pursuing Khordokovsky and Gusinsky for political reasons.

And the message, she said, is a simple one: "Business cannot be in opposition to the power."

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