x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Russians unite in fight to save TV cartoons

With Russia's tightly controlled political landscape and largely apolitical populace, social movements are a rare phenomenon.

People gather in Moscow's Pushkin Square to protest against government moves that could shut down channel 2x2.
People gather in Moscow's Pushkin Square to protest against government moves that could shut down channel 2x2.

MOSCOW // With Russia's tightly controlled political landscape and largely apolitical populace, grassroots political and social movements are a rare phenomenon. Defrauded home investors, drivers disgruntled by soaring petrol prices and corruption, and retirees upset by the state of social benefits have been the notable exceptions in recent years. But thousands of Russians this month have come together - most on the internet, some on the streets - to rally around Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin and the foul-mouthed boys from South Park.

Russia's lone animation network has come under fire from prosecutors over its programming, which includes such popular and iconoclastic US cartoons as The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park. The Russian prosecutor general's office and its Moscow branch issued separate warnings to the cartoon network 2x2 this month, saying the channel was encouraging extremism and damaging children's "moral and psychological development" with its line-up of cartoons, which are primarily aimed at adults.

Thousands of the network's supporters, most of them young people, have taken to the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg to show solidarity with the channel, whose licence is to be considered for renewal today by Russia's Federal Competition Commission for Television and Radio Broadcasting. At least 300 people gathered on Monday evening at perhaps Moscow's most popular central square - across from the statue to the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin - holding signs bearing the 2x2 logo and slogans such as "We Won't Let You Kill Kenny!" - a reference to the star-crossed South Park character killed off in every episode only to be brought back to life in the next.

Another few hundred supporters on Monday evening collected signatures near the Novoslobodskaya metro station in central Moscow before being dispersed by police, the state-run Interfax news agency cited Moscow police as saying. At a nearby club, about 2,000 people showed up for a free concert to support the embattled network, prompting organisers to cancel the show due to a lack of space and safety concerns over the size of the crowd, a police officer on duty near the club told the Russian news portal Gazeta.ru.

The turnout was one of the largest in Moscow in recent years for demonstrations not sponsored - overtly or tacitly - by pro-Kremlin organisations or Moscow city authorities. Riot police over the past two years have violently quashed attempts by political opposition activists to hold protests dubbed "Dissenters' Marches" in several Russian cities, led in part by former world chess champion and fierce Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov.

Unlike the Dissenters' Marches, Monday's demonstrations went off largely without incident, though the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency cited a Moscow police source as saying that one of the protest's leaders was detained because the number of demonstrators far exceeded the number indicated in the organisers' request for permission to hold the event. Grassroots initiatives in contemporary Russia are few and far between, and most such public demonstrations use paid protesters to create the illusion of populist action, Georgy Bovt, a political analyst, said.

"People are largely indifferent to what's happening in politics and in society," Mr Bovt said. "They have no drive to prove something or convince people of anything." Maria Telesheva, a spokeswoman for 2x2, denied that the network has had any role in organising the recent protests. "These were all organised by our viewers who wanted to express their opinion," Ms Telesheva said. "They took care of all of the paperwork and mobilised the demonstrators. We are, of course, happy for the support, but we had no role in it."

The website for the network, which began broadcasting its animation targeting adults in April 2007, does feature an image of the South Park protagonists leading a Soviet-style crowd in which the heads of other characters in the series are embedded. Above the crowd hangs a gavel next to the phrase: "Defend 2x2." The channel has already received one warning from Russia's federal media watchdog for airing inappropriate programming, and a second warning by law would allow its licence to be revoked.

The network is available for free to viewers in Moscow and St Petersburg and via cable in other Russian regions, Ms Telesheva said. It counts 1.5 million viewers daily in the Moscow market, she said. Before prosecutors issued the two warnings this month, 2x2 had come under attack from religious groups saying its programming promotes immorality. Ms Telesheva said Russian viewers are merely unaccustomed to the idea of animation aimed at adults.

"This is a new cultural phenomenon," Ms Telesheva said. "It's very hard to convince Russian television audiences that animation is not just for kids." The network has pulled 118 separate episodes that prosecutors took issue with until the current situation is resolved, and it has also filed a suit with the Moscow Arbitration Court asking that the warning by Moscow's Basmanny District Prosecutor's Office over the South Park episode "Mr Hankey's Christmas Classics" be overturned.

Today's consideration by Russia's Federal Competition Commission for Television and Radio Broadcasting on whether to renew the network's licence is technically unrelated to the controversy over the contentious cartoons, Ms Telesheva said. One source familiar with network's troubles, however, said the moral crusade against 2x2 may be just a red herring. Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of exacerbating the network's troubles, the source said some outside person or organisation may be interested in taking over the channel's broadcasting frequency.

A senior pro-Kremlin MP in Russia's lower house of parliament told reporters in Moscow yesterday that if 2x2 fails to have its licence renewed, his parliamentary committee on youth affairs could seek to take over the cartoon network's frequency for a new channel aimed at portraying "the government's position in the sphere of youth politics", the Interfax news agency reported. The cartoons broadcast by the 2x2 channel "undermine the moral foundations of society and have a negative influence on the next generation, promoting cruelty, violence and sexual promiscuity", Pavel Tarakanov, a member of the United Russia party, headed by the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Mr Tarakanov, whose party has a constitutional majority in Russia's State Duma, said the network's cartoons also promote "extremism and pornography" and that they "bring enormous harm to our culture and government", Interfax reported. cschreck@thenational.ae