Russians grapple with changing broadcast news: Old habits die hard as journalists, government officials and party candidates battle to manipulate the media as independent channels emerge

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The Independent Online
A FORMER scholar of medieval philosophy who dumped Dante for television, Igor Malashenko has a modest, even mundane, goal. He wants to get rich. 'In every other country, a TV licence is a licence to print money. Why should it be any different in Russia?'

In the meantime, he grapples with a more troublesome task as Russia's would-be media magnate - redrawing the paramaters of Russian politics.

'Every political group wants to control the mass media,' says Mr Malashenko, only 39 but already on his third career as boss of NTV, Russia's first commercial television news company. 'They simply don't like information they can't control. Everything else is negotiable.'

In a country where 96 per cent of households have a set, television is Russia's most powerful political weapon. It is the only one that can reach across 11 time zones, break through a thick permafrost of indifference and penetrate into homes rarely touched by newspapers and never by canvassers. Whether Communist or democrat, Russian leaders like to keep a grip on the airwaves. And, until last month, they did.

Russia has two main national channels, Ostankino and Rossiya. Both are state run and, while shedding the more stultifying habits of Soviet broadcasting, still slant news to suit the Kremlin. The bias helped President Boris Yeltsin to victory in a referendum in April, in a shoot-out with parliament in October and, candidates riding on his coat-tails hope, will do the same in legislative elections on 12 December.

The state monopoly, though, is crumbling. The battering ram is NTV, the private firm run by Mr Malashenko from a suite of slick offices overlooking the ruined White House and financed with dollars 32m (pounds 21m)by three Russian banks, Most Group, Stolichny and Natsionalny Kredit.

'For the first few years we are going to lose a lot of money,' Mr Malashenko says. They could also lose friends. While committed in theory to the free-market - in information and goods - many reformers are still uneasy about independent broadcasting. 'One of the most depressing things about Russian politicians,' he adds, 'is they do not learn. They still phone up and think they can place an order for air time.' He is harsh about journalists too: 'They don't understand that their job is to inform not reform.'

He should know. He used to do the phoning, working as assistant spokesman for Mikhail Gorbachev in the final days of the Soviet Union. He then moved to the other side and became director general of Ostankino television. He quit this job in February complaining of 'unlimited influence' by Mr Yeltsin's allies.

NTV's nightly news programme, produced in Moscow by Ostankino defectors and transmitted across western Russia by St Petersburg TV, has already ruffled feathers. Russia has three private production companies but only NTV ventures into the treacherous territory of news.

'The pressure has changed. It used to come straight from someone in the Central Committee,' says Yevgeni Kiselev, a former star presenter at Ostankino now working at NTV. 'It is not like that anymore. The Kremlin is more subtle.' While state channels mostly ignore Mr Yeltsin's critics, NTV has given time to the nationalist leader, Sergei Baburin, and the Communist Party chief, Gennady Zuganov. Another guest was Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist who caused a stir with eyewitness accounts of chaos inside the Kremlin on 3 October. 'Everything we did annoyed them,' Mr Kiselev says.

They also annoyed much of the print media, which sees a conspiracy by mysterious 'commercial structures'. The pro-Yeltsin Moskovsky Komsomolets claims to detect an 'information plot'; Moskovskaya Pravda warns that commercial banks will move from television to gain control of the whole country.

NTV admits to having ulterior motives. But these involve profit not political intrigue. It wants control of Channel 8, now devoted to educational programmes and rarely watched but which could easily become a lucrative business venture. Mr Kiselev makes no bones about why he switched channels: 'Liberty and independence cost a lot of money. Poverty and freedom cannot coexist.'

(Photograph omitted)