A return to Pravda?

International | A hostile takeover of Russia's leading independent media company suggests a dim view of freedom in the Putin regime

Issue: "Summer Travel 2001," May 12, 2001

in Moscow-Russia's evening news watchers are couch potatoes no more. Last month, thousands of them took to the streets to protest what they believe is a state seizure of the country's only independent television network, NTV. Gazprom, a state-run utility monopoly, was snatching up ownership of the network in a hostile takeover. Celebrity journalists, politicians, and entertainment figures mixed speeches with music and poetry to express solidarity with NTV. Across the country, popular support for the network-and the larger issue of free speech-underscored growing concern that the management image of President Vladimir Putin is a cover for old-style authoritarianism. Former President Boris Yeltsin granted a license to NTV in the early days of Russian democracy. The brainchild of a well-known television commentator, Yevgeny Kiselyov, and business magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, NTV pioneered independent news critical of the government with hard-hitting reporting on Russia's two wars in Chechnya. It also threw a spotlight on government corruption. But mounting debt and persistent legal and tax challenges from the Kremlin plagued the network. That gave an opening to Gazprom. It acquired 46 percent in shares of Mr. Gusinsky's empire, known as Media Most. Running up large debts, Media Most sold the shares as collateral for a loan of $262 million. When the Putin administration accelerated payment on the debt, not due until July, Media Most defaulted. Mr. Gusinsky fled Russia to avoid fraud charges lodged against him by Russian prosecutors. He maintains that the charges are false and reflect a political crackdown on his network. A Spanish court last month ruled against a Kremlin demand to extradite Mr. Gusinsky back to Russia. In the United States, CNN founder Ted Turner at one point expressed interest in buying a stake in the troubled network, but Turner spokesman Brian Faw said negotiations would likely end in the wake of the takeover. Now effectively in possession of controlling shares, Gazprom contends that the fight with Media Most is a purely economic one, relating to recovery of the loan. But with most Gazprom officials also connected to the Kremlin, opponents say the state conglomerate is using the debt issue to silence investigative reporting. They saw a return to Soviet-era tactics in the way Gazprom took control of NTV after a shareholders' meeting in April. The utility giant moved immediately to install a new board, a new general director, and a new editor. Police moved in to surround the station to enforce the personnel changes. Inside the station, NTV's old hands responded in the way they knew best: They broadcast the takeover live. The broadcast precipitated the public outcry and street protests. Having tasted robust news reporting, many Russians recognize that it is nonnegotiable in a free and democratic society. They also worry that the event is a benchmark for Mr. Putin as he ends his first year as elected successor to Mr. Yeltsin. His tenure has been marked with crackdowns on political dissent and a consolidation of authority in the Kremlin. "Our network has always been like a bone in the throat of the authorities," said NTV war correspondent Yevgeny Kirichenko. "Now it seems the Kremlin's patience has run out." Meanwhile, the Bush State Department is losing patience with the Kremlin. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said "reasonable observers" would see the changes at NTV and elsewhere in the Russian media as politically motivated. He said Media Most news outlets are "clear targets of a series of extraordinary pressures from law enforcement and other elements of the Russian government." During the takeover, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke by phone with Mr. Gusinsky, and then raised his complaints of harassment during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Just before the NTV scandal, the State Department cited "serious problems" for independent journalists and media in Russia in its annual human-rights report. These include the abduction of Andrei Babitsky, a Radio Liberty reporter who was arrested by Russian authorities while covering Chechnya. (See WORLD, "The Babitsky affair," March 11, 2000.) Mr. Babitsky has been found guilty of possessing a false document-a passport that he claims the police planted on him. He appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and the case is pending. The report further cited "persistent evidence of government pressure on the media," using such methods as tax probes and other investigations. It pointed out that tax police have relentlessly harassed and raided NTV. But the report didn't stop the Kremlin from pushing through with the takeover of NTV. By late April most of the station's journalists had defected to smaller news outlets or quit altogether. In Washington, Newsweek announced it was ending its affiliation with the Russian magazine Itogi, also part of the NTV news organization, after Gazprom officials moved in.

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