At a shareholders meeting today, executives at Gazprom voted to clean out NTV’s governing board of directors as well as many of the station’s editorial management staff.
The move was a blow to NTV supporters who have worked to keep the station — the country’s most influential news source outside the Kremlin — out of government hands.
Among those dropped from station management were embattled executive Vladimir Gusinsky and Evgeny Kiselev, the station’s general director and most prominent journalist.
NTV staff staged a protest Saturday, accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of using the station’s financial woes as an excuse to stifle its independent voice.
“We have no doubt that Vladimir Putin, as before, knows full well what is going on and is thus responsible for the consequences,” they said in a statement read aloud to a crowd of supporters.
“We understand that the final aim of the [shareholders’] meeting, like all of the actions of the authorities against NTV, is to establish full political control over us,” they said.
More than 10,000 NTV supporters gathered outside the station’s headquarters to protest the firings.
Kiselev told the English-language Moscow Times today that he and his editorial team will not accept a takeover by the gas company and will not recognize Gazprom-picked executives as their bosses.
“NTV is not simply a brand,” he said. “NTV is a group of like-minded people. Without these people, there will be no NTV.”
‘NTV will survive’
Despite the backlash, the station’s new director, American investment banker Boris Jordan, said NTV will continue broadcasting with or without its current staff.
“NTV will survive, whether [its journalists] want to work with us or not,” Jordan, who is of Russian descent, told a news conference.
The 34-year-old Jordan said he had no intention of interfering in NTV’s editorial policy and said he would resign if he came under “pressure” from the Kremlin.
“NTV’s problem is not freedom of speech, but ineffective financial management,” he said. “There are two NTVs: the journalists, about whom there are no questions, and the business, about which there are questions.”
Jordan already has a presence in Russian media, with holdings including Europa Plus FM radio and the Afisha publishing house, as well as several mobile phone and Internet companies.
A continuing battle
The NTV takeover is the latest chapter in the saga of Gusinsky, a Russian media mogul who has faced continuing legal trouble after falling out of the Kremlin’s favor.
In the early 1990s, Gusinsky had used his ties to the Russian government to make millions in privatization deals. But since last year, his media outlets were critical of the war in Chechnya and have run exposes on alleged government corruption.
Gusinsky’s legal woes came to a head last summer, with government raids on his offices in May. He was arrested and jailed for three days in June on embezzlement charges.
Russian prosecutors allege the media mogul misrepresented the assets of his company in 1998, when he accepted loans of more than $300 million guaranteed by Gazprom. They say his companies were legally bankrupt at the time.
To get out of jail, Gusinsky agreed to sign over control of his businesses to Gazprom, but, after getting out of jail and subsequently fleeing the country, Gusinsky said the deal was struck under duress.
Now, the 48-year-old Gusinsky is under house arrest in Spain after months of self-imposed exile since a warrant for his arrest was issued in November. A legal battle over whether to extradite him to Russia to face fraud charges is still raging there.
Free speech in question?
Gusinsky says the Kremlin is using the debt dispute as an excuse to punish him for his media outlets’ harsh criticism of the Russian government.
“It is absolutely obvious to everyone that not only is this investigation politically motivated, but that also it is generally a falsification,” he told reporters, “because ordinary economic arrangements, even complicated ones, are being presented as criminal.”
But the Russian government maintains that Gusinsky’s is a special case, and the government’s actions against his companies do not reflect a policy shift against free speech.
“I’m sorry that you’re only interested in Vladimir Gusinsky,” Russian Minister of Press and Information Mikhail Lesin told NewsHour Special Correspondent Simon Marks. “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.”