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Thursday, 19 April, 2001, 21:21 GMT 22:21 UK
Analysis: Russian media troubles
Dissident journalists arrive at TNT headquarters
Former NTV journalists are broadcasting on TNT
By Jacky Rowland in Moscow

The forcible change of management at the Russian television station NTV and the closing down of two independent publications have raised serious questions about President Vladimir Putin's professed commitment to freedom of speech and greater transparency in public life.

They have also highlighted the way in which business and political interests are intertwined in Russia.


These actions lead reasonable observers in Russia and elsewhere to the conclusion that the campaign is politically motivated

Richard Boucher, US State Department spokesman

NTV and the two publications - the daily Sevodnya newspaper and the weekly Itogi magazine - are part of the crumbling media empire owned by the Russian tycoon, Vladimir Gusinsky.

He is out of favour with the authorities in Moscow, who want to prosecute him on fraud charges.

Mr Gusinsky, living in self-imposed exile in Spain, says the allegations are politically motivated, and that the Kremlin is trying to silence his organisation's critical news coverage.

Gazprom wields the axe

The state-dominated company Gazprom has been the agent of the changes in Mr Gusinsky's empire.

Gazprom holds a large stake in the media companies and has moved to take control of them.

Vladimir Gusinsky
Vladimir Gusinsky's media empire is crumbling around him
First to go was NTV, with Gazprom imposing a new director, Boris Jordan, and a new management board.

Journalists who refused to accept the changes were fired. The explanation: Mr Gusinsky had failed to repay hundreds of millions of dollars of loans from Gazprom.

Next were Sevodnya and Itogi: Gazprom laid off editorial staff, once again citing commercial reasons.

But journalists affected by Gazprom's actions said the silencing of NTV and the two independent publications was the culmination of a covert operation by the Kremlin to neutralise its critics.

Post-communist Moscow does not want to be seen to be censoring the press overtly or shutting down publications. Better to find pretexts, the journalists say.

Gusinsky 'neutralised'

The criminal charges against Mr Gusinsky have gone some way to neutralising him as an enemy.


Could the opposition at NTV under the banner of freedom of speech be an opposition to the repayment of debts?

Boris Jordan, NTV's new director

He is no longer able to live in Russia, and although an extradition request to the Spanish authorities has failed, the Russian prosecutor plans to continue the legal pursuit of the tycoon.

The business dispute between Gazprom and the media empire put further pressure on NTV.

The journalists refused to accept the new management, calling it a clumsy attempt to curb the station's independent editorial policy.

Media casualties

In the end, Gazprom had to resort to force and mass sackings.

New security guards were installed at NTV under cover of night, while journalists at Sevodnya and Itogi were dismissed due to "staff cuts".

Former NTV director Yevgeny Kiselyov with the staff of NTV
NTV staff have borne the brunt of the changes
Many people in Russia see these media casualties as part of an official campaign against the freedom of the press.

Thousands of demonstrators joined rallies in Moscow to support NTV journalists in their struggle against the takeover of their station.

The US State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said the United States was "extremely troubled" by events at NTV.

"These actions lead reasonable observers in Russia and elsewhere to the conclusion that the campaign is politically motivated, given the media company's often outspoken criticism of Russian government policies," he said.

A fight about personal wealth?

But others are sceptical about attempts to paint the dispute in terms of black and white.

Many Russians see the battle over NTV as a grubby fight between compromised financial tycoons - more about personal wealth than about a mission to inform.

The new management of NTV is trying to capitalise on these doubts.

"NTV is dominated by the political and commercial interests of just one of its shareholders, Vladimir Gusinsky," wrote Boris Jordan in a letter to a British newspaper.

"Could the opposition at NTV under the banner of freedom of speech be an opposition to the repayment of debts?"

Now the authorities are pursuing tax evasion charges against a senior manager at another television station, TNT.

The channel has recently lent its airwaves to the journalists who have defected from NTV.

Another legalistic explanation for action against a media organisation - but, for some, it seems too great a coincidence.

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See also:

16 Apr 01 | Europe
New blow against Gusinsky media
15 Apr 01 | Europe
In quotes: NTV takeover
14 Apr 01 | Europe
Analysis: The battle for NTV
13 Apr 01 | Media reports
Putin: 'NTV not my problem'
05 Apr 01 | Europe
NTV on air but protests continue
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