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Head of Russia’s Last Independent TV News Service Resigns

MosNews | December 5 2005

The head of Ren-TV’s news service tendered her resignation Monday. Yelena Fyodorova announced her decision shortly after a popular newscaster with Russia’s last big independent television station openly critical of President Vladimir Putin was ordered off the air in what Kremlin critics said was an assault on free speech.

In comments for RL/RFE, Fyodorova explained she no longer considered it possible to work at the channel in the wake of the latest developments in the company. Ren-TV was bought this year by oil producer Surgutneftegaz, German broadcaster RTL and industrial group Severstal, said by analysts to have close links to the Kremlin.

Fyodorova said the actions of the new owners and people placed in charge of editorial policies could lead to the demise of the channel where she had worked for eight years. She and her colleagues have been denied the right to take part in decision making, she said. “I do not want to answer for such a product where reports disappear and the emphasis is changed,” she said. For example, on Sunday a report on the presidential election in Kazakhstan was taken off air, she said.

Fyodorova announced her resignation shortly after Olga Romanova, a popular Ren-TV newscaster was ordered off the air in what Kremlin critics said was an assault on free speech. At the end of last month, Romanova said security guards blocked her way when she arrived for work. She said managers had earlier stopped her broadcasting an item about a fatal road accident involving the defense minister’s son.

“Olga Romanova’s treatment is a clarion call that tells us that we have lost the last station which kept even a little independence and objectivity in its coverage,” the Interfax news agency quoted former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as saying.

Ren-TV’s management denied there was any political motive and said it was making personnel changes to lift ratings. Romanova blamed management “stupidity” rather than Kremlin pressure. She said she was being sidelined after complaining on air several days earlier that management was blocking news items that might anger top officials.

These included a report that prosecutors had dropped charges against the son of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. An elderly pedestrian was killed when the car Ivanov’s son was driving hit her. “I said on air that (this) was an important story that people had a right to hear,” Romanova told Reuters. “Soon after this I was told they did not want me on air.”

Some experts said the deal strengthened the Kremlin’s grip on Russia’s media and could make coverage more compliant in the build-up to a presidential election in 2008 when Putin, limited by law to two terms, must step down.

Ren-TV only broadcasts directly to Moscow and the surrounding region, though it reaches some viewers elsewhere through local affiliates. It says it reaches 97 million people. All Russia’s national television stations are either state-owned or owned by state-run companies. Their reporting is deferential to the Kremlin.

Ren-TV was founded and run by Irina Lesnevskaya and her son Dmitry who jealously guarded the station’s editorial independence. They sold their stake as part of the takeover deal, which was completed in October. The station’s new owners had said there would be no change in editorial policy.

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