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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ORT Gets License, Vote of Support

In a tender held by the Press Ministry on Wednesday, the country's largest television channel, ORT, predictably recovered its broadcasting license after having it put on the auction block for politically biased election coverage.

In remarks reported by Interfax, ORT general director Konstantin Ernst said that "millions of ORT viewers will support" the ministry's decision to grant the right to five more years of broadcasting to the only channel that spans the country from coast to coast.

"We have certainly suffered some damage," Ernst said, referring to the ministry's order to hold the tender. "But I think today's decision has completely neutralized this situation."

The only other bidder for ORT's license was RTR-Signal, a minor subsidiary of the state-owned All Russia State Television and Radio Co., which analysts called a "fig leaf" designed to create the impression of fair competition. After the auction, Press Minister Mikhail Lesin said "nobody had any doubts that of the companies competing for the license today, the only candidate was ORT," Interfax reported.

In order to keep the license, ORT will have to pay the Press Ministry a one-time fee of 30 million rubles (over $1 million) within the next 10 days.

Earlier this year, the ministry ordered tenders for the broadcasting licenses of ORT - which is mostly state-owned but largely controlled by Kremlin insider and State Duma Deputy Boris Berezovsky - and TV Center, the mouthpiece of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

The grounds for the order were two Press Ministry warnings issued to each station for violating electoral law during December's parliamentary election campaign. Under legislation passed in July, any channel that receives two such warnings must either forfeit its license immediately or have it put up for auction at a later date.

Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies, a Moscow-based think tank, said ORT's easy win in the auction was "predictable."

"ORT is a loyal channel, a channel that the Kremlin does not have any problems with," Markov said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

He called the tender a "formality" that the ministry was obliged to follow through with because of the two-warning rule, and also "to show every other [outlet of mass media] that they are ready to punish their own people in the name of justice."

Because of its exclusive capacity to broadcast nationwide, ORT was able to exert significant influence on voters during December's parliamentary elections and this year's presidential campaign. Last year, some analysts said the station's coverage played a major role in clinching the embarrassing defeat of Luzhkov's Fatherland-All Russia movement at the polls in December.

ORT earned its first warning for its coverage of a campaign rally staged in St. Petersburg in December by Right Cause, part of the liberal Union of Right Forces movement, or SPS. The event, held at a stadium, included a pop concert and games designed to attract politically apathetic young people. The ORT report showed teenagers stripping in the middle of the stadium and claimed without any substantiation that many in the crowd were taking drugs. It also featured insulting personal attacks - including racial slurs - on SPS leaders Boris Nemtsov, Irina Khakamada and former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin.

The channel's second warning was a result of its attacks on Luzhkov, including implications that he was directly involved in the 1996 contract killing of U.S. businessman Paul Tatum. Luzhkov sued and, in February, a Moscow court ordered ORT to fork over 50,000 rubles ($1,740) for libel.

In a move some analysts interpreted as a sign of the temporary reconciliation between President Vladimir Putin and Luzhkov, the warnings issued to the mayor's TV Center were deemed invalid earlier this month by a Moscow arbitration court. Last week, the court ruled that the TV Center tender, also set for Wednesday, would be illegal and the Press Ministry canceled the auction Tuesday.

Lesin said the ministry "will maximally fulfill the court decisions that have been handed down," but it plans to appeal the ruling and push ahead with the auction, Interfax reported. Lesin said a special meeting of ministry staff is set for Thursday to decide on the channel's future.

TV Center's license expired May 20, but the station continues to broadcast with a special Press Ministry permit valid until May 31.

Markov believes the ministry is "unlikely" to proceed with its plans to auction off TV Center's license, "especially because of the scandal regarding pressure on mass media for political reasons."

Markov was referring to the latest wave of concern that Putin's state policy may bode ill for freedom of the press. Last week, several hundred people gathered in downtown Moscow to protest the planned TV Center auction. Demonstrators likened the scheduled tender to the armed raid by masked federal agents earlier this month on the offices of Media-MOST, the parent company of the country's main independent television channel, NTV. Following the Media-MOST raid, about 2,000 people rallied in defense of free speech in the center of town, while national media came together to produce a special issue of Obshchaya Gazeta - a public-awareness measure journalists have undertaken in several instances since 1991 at times when they perceived a major threat to freedom of the press.

The armed raid on Media-MOST, which prosecutors claim yielded evidence that the group's security service had been eavesdropping on senior government officials - an allegation the group has denied - has reignited the "media wars" between NTV and state-run ORT and RTR.

Last week, Nikolai Svanidze, anchor of RTR's weekly analytical program "Zerkalo," reiterated charges made by Federal Security Service spokesman Alexander Zdanovich that Media-MOST security service taped conversations of the company's own journalists, among others. Svanidze, who claimed to have seen transcripts of illegally recorded conversations, said it was with "great interest" that he read a transcript of a phone conversation between his college-age son and his girlfriend.

ORT went as far as implying that the security service of Vladimir Gusinsky, the Jewish financier who owns Media-MOST, was cooperating with the Israeli secret service, Mossad. And last Saturday, ORT's muckraking current affairs commentator Sergei Dorenko said "everybody knows Gusinsky's people spy on citizens' personal lives." The following day, ORT spent about 15 minutes of its weekly news program attempting to debunk NTV's portrayal of the Media-MOST raid as politically motivated and conducted with numerous violations.