Outgoing Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev has ordered the creation of a new public service television station to come on air on 1 January 2013.

Unveiling plans for the channel on 17 April, he pledged it would be free of "excessive state influence". There are, though, grounds for doubting whether the new channel will be a public service broadcaster in the true sense of the term and whether it will have much of an impact on Russia's heavily state-dominated television sector.

Doubts principally concern its governance and funding arrangements. According to Medvedev's decree, the interests of the public will be represented by the Public Television Council (PTC), which will be appointed on the basis of nominations submitted by an all-purpose oversight body called the Public Chamber.

No members of the PTC will be allowed to be members of parliament or government officials, which appears to be what Medvedev (above) was referring to when he said that there would be curbs on state influence. But, as several commentators have noted, the Public Chamber itself is a Kremlin-sponsored body and does not have the reputation for standing up for the public interest when it clashes with that of the state - witness its lack of support for the recent protests in support of fair elections.

What is more, the final composition of the PTC is subject to confirmation by the president, who will also have the right to appoint and dismiss the new channel's director-general, who will be its editor-in-chief.

As media commentator Anna Golubeva has pointed out, in most emerging democracies the head of a public TV service is appointed by an independent oversight body. And in cases where a senior politician has this power, such as France and Japan, the decision has to be approved by parliament. (It is also worth noting that the new channel is being created on the basis of a presidential decree rather than primary legislation.)

There are also questions about the station's funding. Medvedev's decree says it will initially function with the help of a state loan and thereafter on the income generated by a special endowment. A small part of the endowment will come from the state, and this will be supplemented by voluntary donations from the public. Contributions from any one individual or company will be subject to a limit that will be imposed by the board of the non-commercial company that will form the basis of the new station.

According to business daily Vedomosti, the endowment should ultimately amount to around a billion dollars, generating an annual income of $33 to 50 million. But this would make the channel very much the poor relation among terrestrial TV channels. The annual budget of Russia's most popular TV station, Channel One, is estimated to be in the region of $800 million.

As media academic Anna Kachkayeva says, this will hamper the new channel's ability to attract top talent. 

With less than nine months to go before launch, there is even uncertainty about how the new station will be broadcast. The decree says the Defence Ministry should draw up proposals for using its own TV station, Zvezda, to transmit its programmes. But this begs lots of questions - for example, will the new station replace Zvezda or will it simply use its transmission facilities? And how will the Defence Ministry respond to this apparent incursion on its territory?

Moreover, Zvezda is only available to about 70m Russians, which means that half the population will miss out on public TV until at least 2015. After that, public TV should be available nationwide as part of Russia's first free-to-air digital multiplex.

Finally, there is the question of the channel's position in the overall media landscape, which is dominated by three TV channels - Rossiya 1, Channel One and NTV- that are all in one way or another controlled by the state and obedient to the interests of the current ruling elite.

The general rule in emerging democracies is for public service broadcasters to replace state broadcasters - as a signal of the government's commitment to media freedom, plurality and impartiality. According to Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council for Human Rights and one of the public TV project's keenest advocates, the only other country that has gone down the same path as Russia of having public TV alongside state TV is Azerbaijan. But in the latest Press Freedom Index produced by Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders, Azerbaijan is 162nd, 20 places below Russia.

Stephen Ennis is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring. 

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by essen

    on 30 Apr 2012 04:36

    When will BBC stop its Russia baiting?
    Democracies of the world have such cute private news channels like News Of the World.
    I would rather watch rt.com than news channels that cynically and unscrupulously hacks into email accounts.



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