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Russia's last independent TV stations to move into Kremlin-owned studios

Russia's National Media Group cites economic motives in moving REN TV and the outspoken St. Petersburg Channel Five. But critics worry the partnering move with Russia Today may presage a loss of editorial freedom.

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Russia's last two independent TV voices, citing financial distress, have announced a major "restructuring" that may involve partnering with state agencies, with what many liberal critics fear could be an inevitable loss of editorial freedom.

Officials of the National Media Group, which owns the independent REN TV and the outspoken St. Petersburg Channel Five, insist they're just looking for economic efficiencies in the reported plans to move REN's operations into a giant Moscow TV center run by the Kremlin's pocket news agency, RIA-Novosti, and home to its 24-hour English-language satellite TV station Russia Today (RT). But liberals say they've seen this happen several times before, beginning with the Kremlin's stealthy use of a commercial dispute to take over the only nonstate nationwide TV network, NTV, at the beginning of the Vladimir Putin era in 2001.

"These two small channels are the very last islands of media freedom in Russia, and if they are to be restructured in the ways we have seen, all too often in the past, they will become part of the official propaganda machine," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former independent Duma deputy. "We are all watching this process with deep fears that, once again, economic optimization will actually lead to censorship. In Russia's TV landscape today, there is basically no freedom."

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