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Ren-TV Yanks Olga Romanova Off the Air

Outspoken Ren-TV newscaster Olga Romanova was abruptly taken off the air after complaining that the channel's management was blocking her from airing reports that might irritate Kremlin officials.

Romanova and media freedom advocates criticized the decision to dump her "24" news program as an assault on free speech, but Ren-TV general director Alexander Ordzhonikidze insisted that he had axed the show in a revamp aimed at boosting ratings.

Romanova said three security guards physically blocked her from entering the studio on Thursday night, just hours after she complained on independent radio station Ekho Moskvy that Ren-TV management was blocking her reports. Among the reports, she said, was one earlier in the week that prosecutors had decided not to charge Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's son Alexander in the death of an elderly pedestrian whom he struck with his car in May.

"Soon after I made my complaints on Ekho Moskvy, I was asked to provide the channel with a letter saying that I could not go on the air because I was very sick. I'm not sick. How could I do that?" Romanova said by telephone Friday.

She said she did not believe that the Kremlin was involved in the closure, and accused Ordzhonikidze of "simply doing the best he can to please the Kremlin."

Ordzhonikidze said politics had nothing to do with the cancellation. "We want to improve the quality of our programs, and we'd like to have other hosts to lift ratings," he said by telephone.

Asked why guards had stopped Romanova from entering the studio, he explained that Ren-TV had "a tough security clearance system." "We have terrorists nowadays, and we cannot allow into the studio everyone who wants to get in," he said.

Asked whether Ren-TV would continue to question the Kremlin line, he said, "In our work, we should show what is happening in the country and in the world."

Ren-TV was founded and run by Irina Lesnevskaya and her son Dmitry, who protected its editorial independence. But it was sold as part of a takeover deal, completed in October, and is now 70 percent owned by oil producer Surgutneftegaz and Steel giant Severstal, both of which are seen as loyal to the Kremlin. European media company Bertelsmann AG holds the remaining 30 percent.

The station's new owners earlier said there would be no change in editorial policy. On Nov. 4, Ren-TV was the only television channel to report the march of scores of ultranationalists through central Moscow. The young people made Hitler salutes and spoke against nonethnic Russians.

Romanova's reporting was tinged with sarcasm -- as were all of Ren-TV's news programs. Her comments were sharp and her accusations direct. Her economic reports were sophisticated, and she spoke to an intellectual audience.

Romanova also writes for several publications, including for Vedomosti, which is co-owned by Independent Media Sanoma Magazines, the parent company of The Moscow Times.

Free speech advocates said the events at Ren-TV were a further assault on press freedom and an example of how widespread self-censorship has become.

"Under five years of an authoritarian regime, our society has lost the power to control the state. It is the state instead that has full control of society," said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. "Under such circumstances, the Kremlin does not need to call a channel and ask for news items to be taken off the air. Managers do it themselves, just in case."

Most major broadcasters have come under the Kremlin's control during Putin's five years in office, starting with the contentious takeover of NTV television by state-run Gazprom in 2001.

Anna Kachkayeva, a media analyst with Radio Liberty, called the Ren-TV development "politically motivated" and accused its management of seeking to show its loyalty to the Kremlin and the channel's new owners.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said he was worried by the development.

"Olga Romanova's treatment is a clarion call that tells us that we have lost the last station that kept even a little independence and objectivity in its coverage," he said, Interfax reported.

Mikhail Fedotov, the secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, a former press minister and the author of the law on media, said Sunday that he was defending Romanova's legal interests and expressed confidence that the issue would be resolved, Interfax reported.

The State Duma's leadership on Friday ordered the Information Policy Committee to contact Ren-TV management and prepare a report about the situation.

Ren-TV broadcasts directly to Moscow and the Moscow region, and it reaches viewers elsewhere in the country through local affiliates. It says it reaches 97 million people in the country of 143 million. For the second week of November, it ranked sixth among national television channels, between THT, at No. 5, and Kultura/Euronews, at No. 7, according to TNS Gallup Media.

(The Moscow Times 28.xi.05)

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