TV news under the Russian spotlight

Mipcom 2011: Focus on Russia

The glossy coffee-table books are everywhere in Moscow.

In bookshops, street kiosks — even branches of a major mobile telephone sales network — Leonid Parfyonov’s youthful face grins from the cover of “Namedni — Our Era.”

Across four volumes Parfyonov, one of Russia’s best-known TV news anchors and journalists, charts the key news stories that gripped the Soviet Union, Russia and the world over four decades.

Parfyonov, whose trademark weekly news and current affairs show “Namedni” used to air on independent channel NTV, is virtually the only Russian investigative reporter to have come through the past 20 years with his TV career intact, hosting weekly show “Such Are Our Years” on pubcaster Channel One. That joins two other news weeklies, “The Week,” which airs on Ren-TV and “News of the Week” on Rossiya 1. But the similarity between the sort of work that he — and other Russian newsies — did in the 1990s compared to what airs today ends there.

Parfyonov’s books chronicles the rise and rapid fall, of post-Soviet independent TV news reporting, the brief flourishing of a fearless, critical news media that bloomed before it was killed off after Vladimir Putin came to office in 2000 and set about rebuilding the power of the Kremlin.

Television first stoked an insatiable public appetite for critical and intelligent news in May 1991, when second state channel Rossiskoye TV was launched and introduced modern, reporter-driven evening news show “Vremya” — just three months before the failed coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev sparked the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1993, the first independent channels, TV6 and NTV, were launched and aired popular critical shows such as investigative showcase “Itogi” and satire “Kukly” (a Russian take on Britain’s “Spitting Image”).

Not everyone in Russia liked that: the writing was on the wall as early as October 1994 when Dmitry Kholodov, a young investigative reporter for newspaper Moscovsky Komsomolets, was killed when he opened a booby-trapped briefcase he had been told contained evidence of widespread corruption in the Russian military. Other high-profile journos have also been killed since while attacks on independent coverage and blunt instruments such as raids by armed and masked tax police on TV studios began to occur.

When Putin came to power in 2000, one of his first acts was to tell businessmen to keep their noses out of politics.

A steady, aggressive Kremlin campaign to neuter the so-called “oligarchs” began and stations renowned for tough reporting fell into its net, culminating in July 2000 when state gas monopoly Gazprom wrested control of NTV and TNT from Media Most founder Vladimir Gusinsky. Many think that TV6 owner and major ORT stakeholder Boris Berezovsky later fled into exile because of Kremlin pressure.

Yuri Burtsev, a coordinator with Frontline Russia, part of Moscow’s Center for Extreme Journalism, dubbed modern Russian television “an instrument of mass hypnotism. Television has become an instrument of the state,” he says.

But Konstantin Ernst, head of pubcaster Channel One, defends contemporary news coverage, saying that it remains professional. “You can’t cheat viewers; if television news was of such a low quality they would not watch it.”

Russia’s One at the top | Producers put Story First in bid to nab auds, sales | TV news under the Russian spotlight

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