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© RIA Novosti. Mikhail Klimentyev

Medvedev’s public TV raises questions

by Anna Arutunyan at 18/04/2012 19:13

A decree announced Tuesday by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev on the creation of a public television channel has sparked a flurry of debate on just how different the project will be from other federal channels.

Already dubbed “Russia’s BBC” the channel is due to go on air on Jan. 1, 2013.  Although it was announced by Medvedev in September 2011, Tuesday’s decree spells out the government’s role in funding and organizing the project – things that may undermine its independence, some media experts said.

The channel’s director and editor will be appointed by the president – a practice Medvedev claimed was followed in countries such as France and Britain.

“The mechanism is based on the opinion of experts and the Public Chamber, but the final word is with the president, just as it is in other countries,” Medvedev said in televised remarks.

Supervisory board

In a bid to protect the project from state influence, the channel will be run by a supervisory council that will exclude state officials. That, proponents say, will ensure public representation in the channel’s governing body.

“There will be free elections for seats on this council, and it [the council] will determine a lot about how the television channel is run,” Dmitry Biryukov, a Public Chamber official and a member of a task force charged with minimizing government influence in the media, told The Moscow News. “It will have considerable influence over the director and it will hold public hearings.”

At the crux of the matter is how Russia’s public TV will be financed.

The channel will take its frequency from an existing federal channel – the Zvezda channel, a network owned by the Defense Ministry and launched in 2006 on the watch of then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

The public TV channel’s funding will come from a financial endowment that will initially be subsidized by the government to the tune of 1 billion rubles ($30 million), Vedomosti reported.

According to Biryukov, the funding plan is “ideal.”

“A large sum of money is placed into a bank, and the interest on that initial fund should be about 1 billion rubles a year, or $30 million,” Biryukov said. “That sum should be enough to fund the channel and pay salaries.”

Private donations

But under the endowment plan, the channel will need to raise about 30 billion rubles ($1 billion) from private donations, which has turned out to be more difficult than initially expected, Vedomosti reported, citing a source close to the presidential administration.

The question of funding, together with the president’s power to appoint the general director, makes the channel vulnerable to government interference, if not control, critics say.

“For a public television to exist, it has to be funded by the public,” said Vladimir Kasyutin, a media expert at the Russian Union of Journalists. “If we could find people who could fund it and then have the right to demand something from the channel, then it would be much like it works in other countries.”

Although the state will not directly influence editorial policy, a lack of public initiative will likely create a situation where the government will end up asking businessmen to make donations towards the channel.

“Of course they will find people to make donations,” Kasyutin said. “Especially if they’re asked by people they can’t say no to.”

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