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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Licenses Face Loophole or Black Hole

When the Press Ministry's licensing commission meets Wednesday to decide the fate of two television and several radio frequencies, including the would-be new channel for Ekho Moskvy journalists, whatever it decides will be under a legal cloud.

And the situation will be the same March 27 when the commission is to consider the highly politicized issue of TV6's frequencies.

The reason is the new Law on Licensing, which came into effect on Feb. 11 and excluded television and radio broadcasting from the list of things -- such as weapons production -- that require licenses.

The law signed by President Vladimir Putin on Aug. 8 was part of Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref's much lauded "debureaucratization" program intended to free businesses from government officials' grips. It not only replaces the 1998 law on licensing, which the Press Ministry has used in awarding licenses, but says clearly in Article 18 that licensing of activities not listed in the new law must be stopped.

"That means that in our country -- perhaps the only country in the world -- anyone who reaches an agreement with the Communications Ministry and receives a technical license can go on the air," said Andrei Richter, director of the Center for Law and News Media at Moscow State University. "In essence, it's wild. But it means that any licenses granted by the Press Ministry after Feb. 11 are illegal and can be contested in court."

Richter said the omission is likely the result of the rivalry between Press Minister Mikhail Lesin and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman, who have fought over powers and property in the field of electronic media. This time around, Reiman and fellow "St. Petersburg liberal" Gref appear to have won a bureaucratic game over Lesin, who is considered a member of former President Boris Yeltsin's "family."

The Press Ministry, however, is unfazed.

Its spokesman, Yury Akinshin, said Tuesday the ministry is simply returning to the pre-1998 situation, when licenses were issued on the basis of other laws, such as the 1991 Law on Mass Media, as well as on government decrees and resolutions.

"We are returning to the old legal situation," Akinshin said. "The commission will continue to work and its licenses will be quite legal: Simply a different legal foundation will be drawn underneath them."

According to the Law on Mass Media, broadcast licenses are to be granted by a federal commission on television and radio -- a non-Cabinet body that has never been formed. In the absence of such a commission, the Kremlin and Cabinet gave the right to license broadcasters to the Press Ministry, which in 1999 created the licensing commission.

The Communications Ministry has continued to license transmitters and its licensing process does not take into account the contents of broadcasting or its financial basis.

The licensing commission, which Lesin counts among his main achievements in office, has introduced a degree of due process and transparency to the previously bribery-ridden and irregular process.

The nine-member commission, which is chaired by Lesin, includes Reiman, who rarely attends its monthly meetings, two Lesin deputies, Mikhail Seslavinsky and Andrei Romanchenko, and two senior technical experts -- Mark Krivosheyev from the state Radio Research Institute and Sergei Nikanorov from the Press Ministry. Apart from the six government employees, it includes three respected industry experts: television anchor and president of the Russian Television Academy Vladimir Pozner; sociologist Vsevolod Vilchek, who led the polling departments first at NTV and then at TV6; and Manana Aslamazyan, director of Internews, a nongovernmental organization that trains television journalists.

Over the past two years the commission has met 23 times, reviewing 780 applications for 313 frequencies and awarding 224 licenses. The two television licenses to be awarded Wednesday are for UHF channels 47 and 53.

Aslamazyan agreed that the current legal situation undermines the legitimacy of the commission, but she said it should continue to work and the Press Ministry and the State Duma should work out a new legal framework.

"For better or worse, the commission treats its duties honestly. The process should not be stopped," she said in an interview Tuesday. "Otherwise a future and more legitimate commission will be overwhelmed by the amount of undone work."

 The day before the licensing commission was to consider a bid by Ekho Moskvy's managers and journalists for another FM frequency in Moscow, editor Alexei Venediktov said he was stepping down from his post at the Gazprom-controlled radio station.

Ekho Moskvy reported that the decision was the result of a failure in negotiations between Venediktov's team and Gazprom-Media management led by Boris Jordan.

"I do not intend to become my own successor, the more so because it is still unclear how Gazprom intends to dispose of its shares in the radio station," Interfax quoted Venediktov as saying. He said he would concentrate instead on building a new radio station, Arsenal, which is bidding for two FM frequencies Wednesday.

After Gazprom took over Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-MOST last April, Ekho Moskvy journalists and Alfred Kokh, who was Gazprom-Media's general director, reached an agreement that Gazprom would sell 8 percent out of its 52 percent stake in the station to former Economics Minister Yevgeny Yasin.

But earlier this month, Jordan sent a letter to Ekho Moskvy nominating his people for the station's board, in a sign that he planned to exert full control over the station. Venediktov said then that Gazprom-Media's move was fully legal although it went against the previous verbal agreements.

A group of Ekho Moskvy journalists formed Arsenal in a partnership with Yekaterinburg radio entrepreneur Nikolai Grakhov to bid for a new frequency in Moscow during Gazprom's hostile takeover last year. Since then, they have used it as a backup option in their talks with Gazprom-Media.

A new editor of Ekho Moskvy is to be elected by the journalists on May 27 and proposed to the shareholders at a meeting scheduled for May 31, Interfax reported. Shareholders will have the last say.

If Venediktov's team loses Wednesday's contest for Arsenal, it will be "in the street," he said. "We are not the first and not the last ones."