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NTV RIP, Again

Even “controlled democracy” in Russia’s media industry is too much for the Kremlin. by Vladimir Kovalev 19 February 2003 ST. PETERSBURG, Russia--If it is possible to die twice, the Russian media outlet NTV knows what it is like. The only independent national television company prior to April 2001, it has found that even its new limited, state-controlled independence was too much.

A year and a half ago its takeover by Gazprom, the country’s state-owned gas supplier and one of the largest energy companies in the world, proved the last straw for the International Committee to Protect Journalism (CPJ), which, in May 2001, included Russian president Vladimir Putin on its list of the Ten Worst Enemies of the Press for 2001. Putin’s peers, responsible for the world’s worst abuses against the media, included Cuban President Fidel Castro, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, and China’s President Jiang Zemin.

"Since taking office last year Vladimir Putin has presided over an alarming assault on press freedom in Russia,” the organization said before listing some of his transgressions. “The Kremlin imposed censorship in Chechnya, orchestrated legal harassment against private media, and granted sweeping powers for surveillance to the security services," the CPJ report said.

Things have simply gotten worse since then.

NTV’s second death--and true rigor mortis looks likelier this time--came in January, when Gazprom showed the door to the station’s director, Boris Jordan, an American businessman with dual citizenship whom Gazprom officials had appointed after the company was taken over from the media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. Three weeks later Jordan was followed by his deputy.

Jordan’s achievements were noteworthy. A banker, he turned a television station that had always bled money into a profit-making business. And, as his superiors seemed to want all along, the programming generally reflected the Kremlin’s line.

That is not to say there weren’t some criticisms aired. Admittedly, the puppet show Kukly, which lampooned Putin savagely before he became president (as a shrink, God Almighty, and a witchlike dwarf), began losing its sting soon after Putin’s election. However, programs such as Namedny, the station’s flagship weekly political analytical show, did remain a fixture and gave space and time to alternative views. Its host, Leonid Parfyonov, was one of those critics, tough and also personal in his attacks (in an echo of Kukly’s heyday, he likened Putin to the elf, Dobby, that appears in the Harry Potter films).

So, the channel was critical to a degree. But did criticism equate with independence? Even the criticism was possibly directed to some degree, or at least so suggests an anecdote recounted by a friend of mine, who lost his job with Gusinsky’s Most-Media company in 2001. Surprised to see an NTV news program heavily critical of Putin, he turned to his companion, who worked with NTV.

"’How did that happen?’ I asked them, and then he pointed to the ceiling and said ‘they’ were told to do this to make an impression of objectivity," my friend said.

That may be apocryphal, but few would argue that NTV’s programming has become less critical since Putin’s election. Few, too, can deny the strength of the links that tie Gazprom to the Kremlin. The relationships are not so apparent in the personnel. Gazprom was once headed by former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. But while its current head, Alexei Miller, may himself not be a former minister, as head of the state’s largest taxpayer--finally; it frequently ignored its duty to pay taxes in the 1990s--the country’s largest company, the state’s largest corporate asset, and a company whose corporate strategy and tactics frequently coincide with Russian foreign policy, his connections to the Kremlin are clear and strong.

But, if NTV was already in hock to the state, why has the status quo changed? The ostensible reason is the channel’s coverage of the Nord Ost hostage crisis. "Let's be honest," Putin said in televized remarks in November. "Television coverage on one of the national channels several minutes before the storming [of the Dubrovka theater] of movements of special forces and its reports on what was happening inside the theater could have led to a huge tragedy."

Putin said the television company--and it was clear he meant NTV--ignored agreements with the Federal Media Ministry and the hostage crisis committee by broadcasting the storming of the theater live.

There was no live coverage of the storming, Jordan riposted the same day. He said the footage Putin was referring to was broadcast five minutes after the assault was finished. But his words got lost in the air and in the post-crisis debate about media (ir)responsibility.

The other NTV action that particularly outraged Putin was the station’s decision to hire a lip reader immediately after the news of a hostage crisis emerged. The result was that after watching silent footage of the first meeting of Putin with the FSB head Nikolai Patrushev--distributed by the Kremlin to the national television companies-- NTV journalists discovered that in the very first hours of the hostage crisis Putin had already decided to storm the theater using gas.

"Thank God someone can make money, but not at any cost, not on the blood of your own citizens, if, of course, those who do this consider these citizens to be their own," Putin said.

It was a clear reference to Boris Jordan, and from that point on, everybody in the national media business understood that Jordan’s days were numbered.

Meeting Ari Fleischer, George Bush’s spokesperson, in December last year, I asked him what the U.S. administration would do to avoid of live coverage of such an event. "We would have asked them not to do this, but it’s their right to make a final decision. We can just ask," he said, but then added that U.S. television companies would have thought twice, aware that if they harmed the operation they would be hurt by the public’s reaction.

In Russia, it wasn’t left to public opinion, but to the authorities. The Kremlin is used to ordering, not to asking.

NTV’s journalists and board are not falling into line easily. Twelve members of the company’s supervisory board stood up against Gazprom’s latest decision, to appoint Nikolai Senkevich as acting director and Anatoly Zemsky as his deputy. Journalists and managers sent a letter demanding a meeting with Miller. They do not believe that a lung specialist--Senkevich’s profession--is the best man that could have been found.

In a sense, then, the spirit of defiance seen when Jordan was first appointed continues. But there is a major difference: This latest management reshuffle has led to an immediate collapse within the company.

Moreover, another symbol of (relatively) independent journalism has been fallen. Eighteen months ago, Kukly became a shadow of its self; this time, Namedny has given up the ghost. Its host (and member of NTV’s supervisory board), Leonid Parfyonov, announced in mid-February that the show has ended. The decision followed a meeting with Gazprom’s CEO, Alexei Miller.

There are not many similar symbols left. The latest demise of NTV shows that the Kremlin's notion of “controlled democracy” is a failure. NTV showed that media that retained some independence of editorial judgment would try and go beyond its limits. Control, not democracy, is now the Kremlin’s key word. NTV will now look like the other two state-controlled television channels: no criticism without Kremlin approval and too sheepish to follow instincts.

That is good news for the Kremlin in a year that will end in December parliamentary elections and that will, next year, be followed by presidential elections. Putin knows the value of a good media coverage: After all, where would the ex-KGB officer have been now if he hadn’t been cherry-picked by the Kremlin in 1999 and had his image assiduously massaged in the media before his election in 2000?
Vladimir Kovalev, a journalist with the St. Petersburg Times, is TOL’s correspondent in Russia’s second city.
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