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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Media Bosses Jockey for Position

It could have been an ominous sign of new media battles on the horizon, poor organization, or both.

When top media executives met Saturday for the closing panel of a two-day conference on thorny relations between the state and the media, there was not enough room on the stage. So the heads of the country's two biggest television companies -- Konstantin Ernst and Oleg Dobrodeyev of state-controlled ORT and VGTRK, respectively -- had to take turns at the head of the presidium table, with the other relegated to the background.

Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, also among the 13 media bosses at the table, announced that the government plans to "reduce its presence on the media market" -- a euphemism for scrapping or privatizing ORT or RTR -- and that his ministry will soon start consultations with private and state-owned industry players on how to proceed "with maximum correctness."

"By May it will become clear," Lesin said.

However, TV6 was the more pressing issue at the conference, titled "The Power of the Press and the Pressure of the Powers" and organized by the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, together with Harvard University's Davis Center and Moscow State University's journalism department.

The fate of the station, which was shut down under a court order last month, dominated the often monologue-like discussion groups in which participants had little time to do more than voice their concerns.

Adding fuel to the discussions were two bits of news that broke during the conference. Kommersant reported Saturday that TV6 general director Yevgeny Kiselyov and his team of journalists were in the final stages of negotiations with a consortium of big Russian businesses led by Anatoly Chubais, head of Unified Energy Systems and an SPS founder, to bid for the channel's frequency.

The tender is scheduled for March 27, and Lesin reiterated Saturday that it would go ahead as scheduled.

Boris Nemtsov, conference chairman and leader of SPS, said he would disclose the members of the consortium this week.

On Friday, Ekho Moskvy head Alexei Venediktov, who is providing temporary refuge for some TV6 journalists on his radio station's airwaves, threatened to resign in protest of a proposal by Gazprom-Media to take a majority on the station's board. The attempt, he said, was lawful but contrary to previous verbal agreements.

Gazprom-Media general director Boris Jordan said the proposal had nothing to do with changing the station's management or its editorial policy. "We are very happy with the programming," he was quoted by The Washington Post as saying.

With such complicated issues developing in the media world, the weekend conference could do little more than provide participants a chance to vent their feelings.

Nemtsov said he was pleased the meeting even came off.

"Only half a year ago the people sitting now in the presidium did not want to see each other, to say nothing of speaking to each other," Nemtsov said. "The fact that the conference took place shows that the situation is changing."

The conference was first planned in May by SPS, Gazprom-Media -- which had just taken over NTV -- and Ekho Moskvy, which was in talks with Gazprom-Media about its own future. But as talks between Gazprom-Media and the radio station crumbled, so did the conference, which was called off with two days' notice.

Still, several pledges emerged from the conference. Nemtsov promised to form a public commission on free press that would first meet March 28 to assess the results of the TV6 frequency tender.

He also said SPS would lobby for a law banning any company, individual or the government from controlling more than 25 percent of the national television market. Such an amendment would force the state to get rid of ORT or RTR.

Jordan called for financially solid and thus independent media to form a lobby to push its interests -- a lower tax on advertising and a level playing field in which state media have no privileges.

"Russia is a unique country where private channels have to compete against state channels that receive government subsidies and consume about 70 percent of the advertising market," Jordan said. "The media forgot that they were businesses, did not form a constructive relationship with their shareholders and did not learn to make money. As a result, they became very vulnerable to political and economic pressure."

Several speakers agreed that the answer to current problems can only be found by looking back to when most media organizations allied themselves with various government clans in their struggle for power and property.

TV6 founder Eduard Sagalayev recalled how he was summoned in 1996 to a meeting soon after the Russian oligarchs agreed at Davos, Switzerland, to make sure President Boris Yeltsin was re-elected. "De facto we appointed the president as a top manager of the Russian Federation Corp. who had to be accountable to that board [of oligarchs]," Sagalayev said Friday.

Another issue was the personal responsibility of journalists -- many of whom actively took part in the past decade's media wars -- for what is happening on the media market today.

"We all grew up with a Soviet background and retain the Bolshevik thinking in which there are two viewpoints -- one is mine and the other is wrong," said Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a press-freedom watchdog. "Society has begun to overcome this mindset, but the press is lagging behind. The press has to turn to society."

Yet Simonov agreed with Sergei Dorenko -- a former ORT anchor whose show played a key role in destroying former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's presidential ambitions -- when he declared Friday that the "romantic" revolutionary period is over and the media have to get organized to protect themselves from state pressure.

"Grumbling by journalists that the authorities have fallen out of love with them is very much like the grumbling of an abandoned mistress," Dorenko said.

Despite a lot of apparently therapeutic talk about the past, much of the discussion was devoted to preventing the government from monopolizing the television market. Vladimir Pozner, president of the Russian Television Academy and anchor of ORT's "Vremena" program, said he advocated replacing state television with public television along the lines of PBS in the United States or the BBC in Britain.

Many participants expressed outrage about the closure of TV6 and demanded full transparency about the tender, including the possible publication of all bidder proposals. Vladislav Fronin, chief editor of the official government Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper, promised to publish the applications.

"One way or another, the period of bandit capitalism in Russia is coming to an end and there will be a competitive environment," Nemtsov said in his closing remarks. "But if media are monopolized, we will turn into a servile flock."