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Background: Putin and the Press

February 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SIMON MARKS: He has been called Russia’s Walter Cronkite, but today, as Evgeny Kiselev anchors his news program on the NTV television network, he wonders whether each appearance might be his last. For the past seven years, Kiselev’s Sunday night news program, “Itogi”– it means “in conclusion”– has been required viewing for Russia’s political class. But for the past year, the program and the network that carries it have been struggling for survival in the face of an onslaught by the government of Vladimir Putin that many here say is a litmus test for the future of free speech in Russia.

EVGENY KISELEV: If the government, which is trying to put NTV, the last independent television station which is broadcasting nationally, under government control, if the government succeeds in it, then with high probability Russia will go on the wrong path. If we survive, that’s a chance for the whole country, for the whole people of Russia, to go in the same direction we are trying to go for the last ten years. So this is an issue of a state against an independent media.

SIMON MARKS: Simple as that?

EVGENY KISELEV: Simple as that.

SIMON MARKS: NTV has been on-air since October 1993. The “N” stands for “Nevazisimaya,” “Independent,” and it quickly established a reputation for pugnaciously challenging the Yeltsin government’s official line. Its coverage of the first war in the breakaway region of Chechnya in 1995 was unsparing and helped mold the antiwar sentiments of Russian public opinion. That established NTV as the country’s leading independent editorial voice and established its owner, a former theater producer, Vladimir Gusinsky, as a central player in Russia’s political life, one of the so- called oligarchs who came to prominence during the Yeltsin era. Today Gusinsky’s company, Media- Most, also owns a 24-hour radio station, a satellite TV network, a newspaper, and a weekly newsmagazine.

Gusinsky’s outlets operate in a media environment that has changed significantly since the Soviet era. Dozens of national newspapers– many of them privately owned– now compete for readers, but the country’s only two other national television networks are under state control, and Vladimir Gusinsky’s empire has run into massive trouble. Last May, the Russian prosecutor’s office carried out armed raids on his businesses, and in June arrested him on charges of embezzlement. Released after three days in a notorious Moscow prison, Gusinsky maintained that he was the innocent victim of a heavy- handed Kremlin campaign to silence him.

VLADIMIR GUSINSKY: ( Translated ) It is absolutely obvious to everyone that not only is this investigation politically motivated, but that also it is generally a falsification, because ordinary economic arrangements, even complicated ones, are being presented as criminal.

SIMON MARKS: To get out of jail, Gusinsky agreed to sign a document handing control of his businesses over to the Russian state gas company, Gazprom. Gusinsky had turned to Gazprom in August 1998 in the midst of Russia’s financial collapse. It agreed to underwrite loans the mogul used to shore up and then expand his empire. But after signing his companies over to Gazprom when he came out of jail, Gusinsky fled the country claiming the deal had been struck under duress. Today he’s under house arrest in Spain and the Russian authorities are seeking his extradition. He was not immediately available for an interview. Back in Moscow, NTV continues to broadcast, Gazprom maintains it now owns a controlling stake in the network, and the future is confused and unclear.

NTV supporters say that what’s at stake here is nothing less than the future of free speech in Russia, but others say things aren’t that simple. They argue that just to become one of Russia’s most successful businessmen, Vladimir Gusinsky must at least have cut some legal corners in the ’90s. And they say that in 1996, by turning the broadcasts that emanate from these studios into a tool of then-President Boris Yeltsin’s reelection campaign, Mr. Gusinsky himself raised some questions about the editorial independence of NTV. NTV, for example, suppressed the news that Boris Yeltsin had suffered a heart attack during the election campaign. Its executives joined the Yeltsin campaign team, and the network offered barely any airtime to his Communist rivals. And while NTV executives today say they regret their support for Yeltsin, the reelected President richly rewarded the networks that had stuck by him. NTV won broadcast licenses and those loans underwritten by Gazprom, the very loans the Putin administration is today, in effect, calling in.

ANDREI ZOLOTOV: This is more complex than the way either side tries to present it.

SIMON MARKS: Andrei Zolotov has spent the past year covering the NTV story for the Moscow Times, the city’s independent English language daily.

ANDREI ZOLOTOV: Of course it is not just a business conflict. It’s not only about debts, because if you look at other Russian television stations, they have nearly the same humongous debts to the state as Gusinsky does. In a way, the government told Gusinsky, “if you want to be in opposition, don’t do it with the government’s money. No more debt cancellation, no more tolerance towards lack of financial discipline. If you want to be against the Kremlin, do it on your own, and we’ll see how you do that.”

SIMON MARKS: Many in Moscow believe that President Vladimir Putin is personally orchestrating the campaign against NTV. Among other things, he’s said to have been enraged by the way in which he’s portrayed on “Kukly,” the network’s weekly satirical puppet program. On a recent episode, the President was lampooned as a sinister monk hatching evil plans for the country. Mikhail Shenderovich is “Kukly’s” creator.

MIKHAIL SHENDEROVICH: (Translated ) Vladimir Putin’s image of the press is the image traditionally held by a career intelligence officer. He thinks the press should be something that serves the interest of the party, the interests of the state, and the private interests of the President. He has no use for a media, which has thoughts of its own, which serves as an independent public watchdog. I realized this when I looked into his eyes and listened to his words about freedom of the press.

SIMON MARKS: Mr. Shenderovich and many of his NTV colleagues had an opportunity to look into the President’s eyes last month. They were summoned to the Kremlin to hear Mr. Putin say that he is committed to a free press, but that their boss, Mr. Gusinsky, must answer the criminal charges against him. Anchorman Evgeny Kiselev says the President is deliberately engineering the NTV network’s collapse.

EVGENY KISELEV: He wants to be a member of this elite club of world leaders, and if you want to be a member, you have to obey the rules. That’s why he doesn’t have the guts just to shut us down in the Soviet-style manner. That’s why the state is trying to suffocate us by financial measures.

SIMON MARKS: Not so, says the government in the form of Mikhail Lesin, the minister of press and information.

MIKHAIL LESIN: ( Translated ) The constitution guarantees the rights that we’re talking about: Freedom of speech and freedom of journalistic activity. There are no threats, no limits to it, and no problems; and there can’t be any, because the law clearly indicates that won’t be tolerated.

SIMON MARKS: Reporter: Mr. Lesin says NTV is a victim of financial mismanagement, of self-inflicted wounds that obscure a generally more positive media picture.

MIKHAIL LESIN: ( Translated ) I’m sorry that you’re only interested in Vladimir Gusinsky. I think that if you guys showed the whole picture and not only Vladimir Gusinsky, you would see lots of positive things in Russia, lots of media outlets working normally, newspapers being printed, normal criticism, and real freedom of speech.

SIMON MARKS: NTV’s future may now rest on the role western investors decide to play. Both Ted Turner and the financier George Soros have expressed an interest in making a $300 million investment in NTV’s parent company. Vladimir Gusinsky says he will sell to them if the network’s editorial independence is guaranteed. The government says it can’t guarantee NTV’s independence, because it insists it’s playing no role at all in determining the network’s future. Evgeny Kiselev, struggling to produce his weekly political program now government leaders routinely refuse to appear, maintains the Kremlin even tried to bribe him to come off the air.

EVGENY KISELEV: Six months ago we were offered $300 million in cash to sell NTV and other businesses and leave the country. You know, it’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of money. But Mr. Gusinsky, together with me and other partners, decided not to accept this offer. There are things in this country, in Russia, more important than money; for example, freedom of the press. So you can treat us as helpless idealists, but we really believe that we have a mission, and we have to carry on, period.

SIMON MARKS: Despite the questions about its financial background and the strategic errors its managers acknowledge they made, all sides in this battle agree that NTV has changed the face of Russian television. The question now is whether it will be allowed to continue doing so, or whether Russia’s most vibrant symbol of media freedom will simply fade to black.