#7 - JRL 7240
FEATURE - As Russia election nears, TV independence goes
By Jonathan Thatcher
MOSCOW, June 26 (Reuters) - Say what you like about the Kremlin -- just don't do it on Russian television.
This week, TVS, the last of Russia's nationwide independent television stations, switched off under orders from the Information Ministry because it had run out money.
Few believe the official line is the only reason and the move earned a quick rebuke from normally friendly Washington which saw it damaging press freedom.
The closure follows repeated meddling in the country's television industry, the one medium which has the real power to reach Russia's impoverished masses who in December vote in parliamentary elections and next year for their president.
President Vladimir Putin seems assured of re-election and of keeping his hold on the Duma (parliament) thanks to his pro-growth economic policies, tough law and order campaign and -- perhaps most important -- the lack of any serious rival.
"You can't deny the link between the elections and TVS," said Boris Makarenko, deputy head of the Institute of Political Technologies think tank.
So, why should Putin care if he has both elections sewn up?
"It's taking an extra precaution," Makarenko said, comparing it to the desire for huge election wins in some of the former Soviet states in Central Asia, where hard-line leaders routinely shoot for 90 percent or more of the votes.
The Kremlin, historically a skin-flint with information, has turned even more miserly during Putin's three years in power, perhaps in response to the chaotic times under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin and his own training in the KGB.
Local reporters, even in officially-favoured media, complain that it has become harder to squeeze droplets of news out of the imposing Kremlin buildings next to central Moscow's Red Square.
Vladimir Pozner, one of Russia's best know television commentators going back to Soviet days when press censorship was the norm, called the closure of TVS a "great disappointment."
"I am very much afraid that this autumn (in the run-up to the Duma elections) the situation will be such that it will be very difficult for any broadcaster to provide an objective picture of a variety of political events," Pozner, now head of the Russian Television Academy, told the Vremya Novostei daily.
With the demise of TVS -- it closed abruptly at midnight on Sunday, replaced by a sports channel -- Russians now have only three national channels with news programmes -- all are controlled directly or indirectly by the state.
"Putin was elected three years ago mainly because of television. He understands that he needs television," said Alexei Venediktov, chief editor of the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy.
"When one organisation controls the market, it is bad. When that one organisation is the state, and that market is information, it removes a key basis for democracy."
The United States linked the demise of TVS with the withdrawal of TV6's licence last year and the takeover in 2001 of NTV by the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the shutdown of TVS's two predecessors "do lend this closure the appearance of possible political motivation. Freedom of the press, I think, is ill-served by the closure of TVS."
Leading television journalist Leonid Parfyonov, who runs NTV's flagship Sunday evening news magazine, said Russian audiences themselves supported tougher measures against the press.
"You can't blame Putin for everything. It's just the way Russia is. Part of our audience wants more draconian measures," he told Reuters.
"On the one hand Putin is the most liberal politician in Russia...on the other hand these (his liberalisations) are not done in a liberal way.
"This is an enlightened -- not hereditary -- monarchy."