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Monday, 9 April, 2001, 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK
Eastern Europe's media revolution
Media correspondent Nick Higham examines the occupation of Russia's NTV studios by journalists for BBC News Online.

Last week thousands of people took to the windswept streets of a Moscow suburb to protest at what they saw as the politically-motivated takeover of Russia's leading independent television network, NTV.

On Sunday another 4,000 protesters filled Troitskaya Square in St Petersburg.


The former Soviet Union still has not come to terms with the idea of a truly open, independent and democratic media

Meanwhile journalists at the channel are occupying the studios - and for a time broadcasting continuous live news in place of regular programmes - while accusing the company's new management of censorship and trying to stifle freedom of the press.

Among their supporters is Russia's former President Mikhail Gorbachev.

But 12 years after the collapse of communism and the start of a new era of glasnost and openness ushered in by Gorbachev, it seems old habits die hard among the Moscow nomenklatura.

Allegations

The former Soviet Union still has not come to terms with the idea of a truly open, independent and democratic media.

Journalists in Prague
Supporters of the Prague strike delivered food to journalists
That is true elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc as well.

At the start of the year 100,000 people packed into Prague's Wenceslas Square to protest at the appointment as the director of Czech state television of Jiri Hodac - a former news editor at the channel who had been forced to resign after allegations of pro-government bias.

In Prague too, striking journalists staged a newsroom sit-in.

In Prague too they had backing from one of the original architects of reform, the Czech president Vaclav Havel.

The demonstrations echoed the heady days of 1989 and the Velvet Revolution which toppled the communists.

And on this occasion too people power won. Mr Hodac eventually resigned after collapsing due to stress.

Pressure

Meanwhile across the Balkans in Bulgaria a similar row is rumbling on over the appointment of a new director for state radio.

Some 500 journalists have been protesting at the selection for the job of Ivan Borislavov, a poet and translator with little management experience.

The government's radio and television council is accused of choosing a nonentity for the post because he will be ill-equipped to resist political pressure.

Vladimir Gusinsky
Vladimir Gusinsky's company Media-Most owns 30% of NTV's shares
Last week, as Bulgaria's supreme administrative court condemned his appointment as illegal, Mr Borislavov too was feeling the strain - recovering from a heart attack suffered after a stormy broadcast debate with his opponents.

To many observers this kind of government meddling is evidence of a political culture that has failed to adapt to changing times - in particular to the arrival of democracy and to the idea of national media (even those nominally controlled by the state) which are free to report dissenting voices and to criticise government.

Financial trouble

In Russia NTV has been a persistent thorn in the side of President Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin for its critical coverage of the war in Chechnya and the loss of the submarine Kursk.

Little wonder that the President reputedly wants the channel tamed.

But real life is rarely entirely straightforward.

The situation in Russia is complicated by the fact that NTV - the only one of Russia's three national networks not directly controlled by the state - is also in deep financial trouble.

And one of its founders, Vladimir Gusinsky, whose company Media-Most owns 30% of NTV's shares, is currently fighting attempts to extradite him from Spain to face embezzlement charges.


NTV's best hope may now lie with an outsider, the American media mogul Ted Turner

Last week Russia's state-owned gas company, Gazprom, which owns another 48% of NTV, mounted a boardroom coup which ousted Gusinsky's managers, including its star presenter Yevgeny Kiselyov.

Gazprom is owed some $260m by Media-Most, and says it acted in the hopes of recovering its debt.

'Mouthpiece'

But the new Gazprom-appointed management includes a former head of the Russian state privatization organisation, Alfred Kokh, who was forced to resign in 1997 - after accusations of corruption broadcast by NTV.

The new team deny they were sent in to tame NTV and turn it into a Kremlin mouthpiece, insisting instead that the company is broke and that the takeover is designed to safeguard its future.

NTV's supporters clearly do not believe that. But splits have emerged even among NTV's journalists.

Two of the best-known have resigned, claiming they were being treated as "cannon fodder" in the dispute with the new management.

Enemy

And on Sunday night a leading current affairs presenter on one of the state channels used his own programme to accuse NTV's journalists of behaving hysterically and of damaging the prospects for "intelligent, sober and firm opposition" to those in power.

Ironically NTV's best hope may now lie with an outsider, the American media mogul Ted Turner.

He has been negotiating to buy Vladimir Gusinsky's stake for months.

If he succeeds in pulling off a complex deal with Gazprom, NTV's independence may be guaranteed - but at the expense of management control passing to a representative of the old enemy, the United States.

See also:

07 Apr 01 | Europe
Russians rally for NTV
05 Apr 01 | Europe
NTV on air but protests continue
04 Apr 01 | Europe
NTV's battle with the Kremlin
16 Jun 00 | Europe
Gusinsky: Thorn in Putin's side
02 Jan 01 | Europe
Analysis: The Czech TV rebellion
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