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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hundreds Protest Sale of TV Center

The planned sale next week of the broadcast license of TV Center, the channel controlled by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, brought hundreds of people out onto a central square in protest Friday.

TV Center President Oleg Poptsov, members of the city government, journalists and performers addressed the several hundred protesters on Pushkin Square, many of whom carried posters critical of the Press Ministry, which initiated the sale, and flags of Luzhkov's political party, Fatherland-All Russia.

The protest was reminiscent of a bigger rally Wednesday at the same spot, which was triggered by last week's raid by armed federal agents on Media-MOST, the parent company of NTV television.

"TV Center, NTV, any newspaper - their fates are not simply the fates of a newspaper, a TV channel, a radio station; their fates are the fates of the society, the fates of the people," Poptsov said.

"We don't need a government that tells us what to read, what to say and what to see."

Earlier this year, the Press Ministry ordered tenders to be held for the broadcasting licenses of TV Center and the country's No. 1 channel, ORT, which is partially state-owned but largely controlled by media mogul and Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky.

Two warnings issued by the Press Ministry to both stations during the State Duma election campaign for what it said were violations of electoral law served as grounds to auction the licenses.

The tenders for both licenses are scheduled for Wednesday; TV Center's license expires May 30.

Under legislation passed last July, all channels that break broadcasting laws either have to forfeit their licenses immediately or have them put up for auction at a later date.

However, the allegations against TV Center for its pro-Fatherland coverage were dismissed earlier this month by a Moscow arbitration court. And last week, the court ruled that auctioning TV Center's license would be illegal.

Press Ministry spokesman Yury Akinshin said in a telephone interview Friday that the ministry will cancel the auction of TV Center's license only once it receives a written copy of the court decision. The auction of ORT's license will be conducted as planned, he said.

TV Center's license is being sought by four companies: pro-Kremlin Ren TV and VID production company; ATV, one of the country's first independent television production companies; and TV Center itself.

Only two companies will compete for ORT's license: ORT and RTR-Signal, part of the All Russia State Television and Radio Co.

Anna Kachkayeva, a media expert and assistant professor of journalism at Moscow State University, called the upcoming tender of TV Center's license a "political issue" and compared it to the raid on Media-MOST. At the same time, she said the tender for the broadcasting license of pro-Kremlin ORT was only initiated by the Press Ministry "to create an impression of fair competition."

Kachkayeva called the tender of ORT's license "a fig leaf designed to give the impression that everything is being done according to the law," adding that it most likely will be won by ORT itself.

Andrei Richter, head of the Media Policy Center, agreed.

"I can see a common policy in these incidents," Richter said. "One can call this an attempt by the government to put pressure on mass media."

On Friday, another search of Media-MOST's offices was conducted, NTV reported. It gave no details. Like TV Center, Media-MOST's holdings have been critical of the Kremlin.

If the tender for TV Center's license goes ahead, VID intends to take part despite the court decision, said VID spokeswoman Olga Borovik.

"We were the first company to apply for the tender," Borovik said. "We are not fighters for justice. It is not important for us to fight for any high idea. We simply make television."

VID produces popular prime-time television shows for ORT.

Yulia Yarmarkovich, spokeswoman for the second-tier Ren TV, confirmed that the company has applied to participate in the tender, but said the company's administration is not commenting on the issue. ATV spokeswoman Irina Klyonskaya refused to comment.

Officials at RTR-Signal could not be reached for comment.

Boris Pustyntsev, who chairs the Citizens' Watch human rights group in St. Petersburg, warned that the new government will put even more pressure on mass media. He said President Vladimir Putin's decision Thursday to appoint men in uniform as his representatives in the new federal districts he created to tighten his grip over the regions boded ill for freedom of the press. Pustyntsev predicted the government would "execute" all mass media that attempt to criticize it.

"Lack of information will be the rule from now on," Pustyntsev said by telephone from St. Petersburg on Friday. "To execute the mass media that publishes information that is not meant to be published is the special services' instinct. And today, our special services are our government."

On Friday, visiting U.S. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger met with representatives of the country's mass media in a closed meeting. According to a U.S. Embassy spokesman, who asked not to be named, the meeting "was a lively discussion about where press freedom is headed."

"There were members of NTV and Media-MOST there and you can imagine the kind of perspectives they put forward," he said.