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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

TV Freedom the Hard Way

At a meeting of the National Association of Television and Radio Broadcasters late last year, the organization's president, Eduard Sagalayev, was asked when the public oversight council -- conceived as the arbiter of the Charter of Television and Radio Broadcasters, a code of ethical norms for the broadcasting industry adopted in 1999 -- would finally be created. The gist of his answer was that we're better off creating new monstrosities than resurrecting old ones. His reply provides a fitting epigraph to recent events in the media industry.

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According to poll results released last week, the number of Russians who would support the introduction of censorship on television has risen from 63 percent to 82 percent in the past year. At issue is "moral" or "social" censorship; the good news is that 99 percent of those polled opposed political censorship on television. It also emerged that the public is much more optimistic about the level of freedom of speech in Russia than most opposition politicians and journalists. Only 17 percent of those polled believe it's impossible to express a point of view critical of the regime in the media, while 40 percent said that such views could be aired at any time and 36 percent said this was possible some of the time. What's more, 51 percent of respondents said that the opposition should receive more television coverage.

What we have here is a clear and concise plan of action for the public, journalists and the regime: Television should raise its standard of decency, and the regime should encourage the expansion of political pluralism. Yet the media and the politicians have responded to these simple, understandable demands by creating an unprecedented number of "new" monstrosities.

The heads of the very television stations that for years failed to uphold the existing Charter of Television and Radio Broadcasters have now signed a new charter, "Against Cruelty and Violence," which, like its predecessor, contains no enforcement mechanisms apart from the signatories' word of honor. The Union of Journalists formed the Grand Jury for Complaints Against the Press, whose members -- judging by their comments in the press -- don't have a very clear idea of what their powers are or what levers they have for influencing the media. Not wanting to be left out, the Freedom of Speech Defense Committee, recently formed by a number of opposition parties, also adopted a free press charter.

The demand for greater objectivity on television was met with Culture and Press Minister Alexander Sokolov's announcement that the country can't afford public television and the unveiling of Russia Today TV, a new 24-hour English-language satellite channel designed to improve Russia's image abroad. The State Duma held a round-table discussion on strengthening the Public Chamber's power to ensure that television stations adhere to the principle of free speech.

With so many new monstrosities around, it's easy to lose sight of a few time-tested truths. Russia, unlike the overwhelming majority of democratic countries, still has no specific law on television and radio broadcasting that would regulate the allocation and exploitation of broadcasting frequencies, a limited public resource. Although Russia, as a member of the Council of Europe, is required to create a public-service broadcaster, this much needed institution does not yet exist.

It wouldn't take much. The Council of Europe, UNESCO and the European Broadcasting Union have all issued detailed guidelines for regulating the broadcasting industry. We could simply select or cobble together a plan suited to our specific situation. The issue could be resolved in months, if not weeks.

We prefer to go our own way, however. Why do something cheaply and simply when it can be done in a roundabout way at great expense?

Alexei Pankin is opinion page editor at Izvestia.