Russia test-launches 24-hour English news channel

Associated Press
Sept. 15, 2005


MOSCOW - Russia launched experimental broadcasts Thursday of a 24-hour English-language satellite TV news channel aimed at polishing its image abroad and presenting foreign audiences with its view of the world.

Boasting a staff of 344 people and $30 million earmarked from the state budget, Russia Today kicked off test broadcasts with a British anchor reading news against a pink-and-orange background and dozens of editors and producers busily working on their computers in spacious newsrooms. The channel will be broadcast in North America, Europe and Asia.

"All too often, the view of Russia does not correspond to reality: information on Russia is either distorted or incomplete or just nonsense," said Margarita Simonyan, the chief editor.

The channel's founders say Russia Today aims to counter the often negative stereotypes of Russia created by foreign media and present a balanced view of this vast country of 143 million.

"You need to think about how the news is seen from here in Moscow," said Michael Alexander, an editor at the channel.

Critics, however, dismiss the project as Kremlin-funded propaganda launched at a time when President Vladimir Putin is coming under increasing criticism abroad for backsliding on democracy.

Since coming to power five years ago, Putin has created an obedient parliament, abolished direct gubernatorial elections and presided over reining in non-state TV channels.

Media reports have suggested the project was the brainchild of Putin's presidential secretary Alexei Gromov, and analysts have expressed doubts over the objectivity of its news coverage.

Simonyan pledged, however, that authorities would not interfere with the channel's coverage.

"I don't think it would make much sense if they did. It is pretty obvious when you censor it," said Simonyan, 26, who was appointed chief editor after several years of serving as a Kremlin reporter for the state-run Rossiya channel.

"The audience out there is so sophisticated these days that they will see at once what's right and what's wrong and then they will never switch us on again," she said.

Simonyan said the channel would eventually have a board of governors to monitor its coverage and ensure its independence from the state. She declined to identify potential trustees.

Simonyan said the channel's objectivity would also be guaranteed by the 72 foreign journalists who have been hired from the U.S., Britain, Australia and other countries.

Russia Today is expected to start broadcasting by the year's end, but other details like how it will be disseminated and its advertising plans were sketchy. Simonyan declined to estimate the number of the channel's potential audience.

The channel will focus on events inside Russia, but will also cover international news. A Thursday newscast shown to reporters during a tour of the station's office included reports on opposition figure former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, the jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the U.N. summit in New York and Hurricane Ophelia off North Carolina.

Experts, however, said a state-funded TV station could hardly be allowed to criticize the authorities and provide a truly balanced viewpoint. "When the state is behind mass media, this rarely produces a decent information product," said Konstantin Isakov of the MR&MC media consulting group.