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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Echo of NTV May Be Heard in Regions

MTAndrei Norkin went from NTV to Ekho TV.
From a cluttered television studio in central Moscow, a small group of journalists and commentators is doing the kind of broadcasting that has all but disappeared from the major networks -- by daring to criticize Kremlin policies.

With the closure in June of TVS, Russia's last national nonstate-controlled television channel, the small broadcaster Ekho TV has become a refuge for some TVS personalities, including satirical commentator Viktor Shenderovich and news anchorman Vladimir Kara-Murza.

But most Russians would have to leave the country to see them. Ekho TV is watched by Russian-speaking audiences in the United States, Israel, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Ukraine and the Baltics. But tuning in to its broadcasts in Russia requires special satellite equipment, which is expensive and hard to find.

Ekho TV is a new shoot rising from the ruins of a media empire built by Vladimir Gusinsky -- a once-powerful financier who fell out of the Kremlin's favor and fled Russia after having been charged with defrauding the state of $262 million, to which prosecutors later added a money-laundering charge. But he may reclaim a place on Russia's airwaves, if Ekho TV's plans to begin broadcasting in some regions of the country pan out.

The station is headed by Andrei Norkin, who used to work for Gusinsky's NTV television before it was taken over by government-controlled Gazprom in 2001. Against the backdrop of largely pro-government reports on all major networks, his newscasts have the same cutting edge and sharp criticism of the authorities that had marked his NTV broadcasts.

"All newscasts on federal channels are very much alike and made according to the same standard. Their top story is the president's presence here or there," said Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation. "If you switch channels, you see the same thing, at best shot from a different spot.

"The fact that they [Ekho TV journalists] are producing alternative and unbiased information is certain," Simonov said.

Ekho TV also airs satirical comments by Shenderovich, whose "Besplatny Sir" ("Free Cheese") program on TVS had harshly ridiculed officials' blunders and general misdeeds.

Shenderovich was the main screenwriter for the "Kukly" political puppet show on NTV, and he mocked the government in his "Itogo" program on TV6.

Igor Tabakov / MT

Journalists working at Ekho TV, which provides news from Russia for a New York-based company owned by Vladimir Gusinsky.

Since the Press Ministry ordered TVS shut down, Shenderovich said he has not received a single offer from any of the national channels.

"If I wanted to host some silly show, there would not have been any problem with that," he said. "But an absolute ban has been placed on the genre in which I work."

Ekho TV provides news from Russia for RTVI -- which stands for Russian Television International -- a New York-based company owned by Gusinsky. Although technically a separate entity, Ekho TV can best be regarded as the "Moscow bureau" of RTVI, in Norkin's words.

And now Ekho TV may be about to bring its newscasts about Russia to viewers in Russia. Norkin said the station expects to clinch deals to sell its programs to at least five local television companies, including in key regions such as Nizhny Novgorod and Yekaterinburg.

Although Ekho TV was created in February 2002, it was this June, when TVS was shut down, that regional television stations began to express an interest in its programs, Norkin said.

"The way I see it, the closure of TVS served as that last drop that overfilled the cup of patience, and the lack of information began to be felt very strongly," he said.

Media watchers welcomed Ekho TV's plans to break into Russia, saying it would be a much-needed return of high-quality, independent journalism on television.

"This would be wonderful," said Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a media watchdog group.

"The mere fact that Andrei Norkin is working there is a good sign of honesty and objectivity. ... This is a man who would not produce bad news," Panfilov said.

Simonov called Ekho TV's possible broadcasting to Russian regions "exceptionally important." But Alexei Pankin, editor of media magazine Sreda, was more skeptical.

Large cities like Nizhny Novgorod and Yekaterinburg receive up to a dozen television channels, and although Ekho TV would provide "a different kind of news," its appearance would not be likely to make much of a difference, he said.

Still, it might be enough to make the authorities nervous. "Our authorities are stupid enough" to decide that the appearance of one more channel presents a danger for them, Pankin said.

With a staff of only about a dozen full-time correspondents and a corps of stringers, Ekho TV provides a view of events that is conspicuously missing from the main television channels.

When the last two main challengers to the Kremlin's favored candidate in the Chechen presidential race were removed last week, Ekho TV made it a lead story for two days running.

"The election in Chechnya can already be considered over," Norkin said in his newscast, adding that the way was now clear for Akhmad Kadyrov, the Kremlin-appointed head of the Chechen administration. The main television channels simply reported that one of the challengers decided to withdraw from the race and another was removed by a court.

"The principles that my colleagues and I previously held, we still hold them," Norkin said in an interview. "If some event happens, we try to cover it from all points of view: what this side believes, and what that side believes, and what a third side believes, if there is a third side.

"Because we have no taboo topics, there are some painful points in our programs."

TV coverage of such "painful points" in the past often brought repercussions.

Following the NTV takeover, its journalists fled to Boris Berezovsky-owned TV6, but it was driven into bankruptcy in 2002 by a group of minority shareholders with close ties to the Kremlin. The journalists then formed TVS, but it lasted for only a year.

"The way I see it, the country's leadership believes that the implementation of those reforms that they have in mind is possible only if they have control over the media," Norkin said.

Ekho TV has had no problems with the authorities, which Shenderovich suggests is because the authorities only care about broadcasts that reach the voters.

"As far as they [the authorities] care, we simply don't exist," he said.

But with parliamentary elections coming up in December, to be followed by a presidential vote in March, Ekho TV could expect to be treated differently if it started broadcasting in Russia.

"I think they may get into trouble, because it wasn't for nothing that the authorities brought central television into line, which now can rightfully be called the Central Television of the Soviet Union," Panfilov said.

"Alternative information will certainly be met with bayonets."

Simonov predicted that if Ekho TV programs become widely received in Russia, the authorities may try to shut down the station.

"As soon as some alternative information is noticed by the center, we may see the same development [as with TV6] involving minority shareholders or something like that," Simonov said.