High on the eighth floor of Russia's national television center, journalists from NTV gather for what amounts to a council of war. With tense and tired faces, they listen as one of the station's lawyers, Yuri Bagrayev, briefs them on the day's big news--the latest twist in a prolonged campaign to shut them down. "Don't have any illusions," Bagrayev warns. The government is against you, the courts are fixed, the police could come at any time to drive you out. "Get ready. Soon you'll have to make a choice."
That "choice," as they see it, is to stick to their principles as Russia's most critical television journalists, and perhaps lose their jobs, or to pay obeisance to their likely new owners, allies of President Vladimir Putin. NTV is the sole remaining independent television channel in Russia, the only voice of the country's increasingly enfeebled political opposition. Slowly but surely, Putin and his supporters have muted--if not silenced--media critical of him and his policies. NTV has been among the harshest, reporting aggressively on the failed war in Chechnya, official corruption and the embarrassing scandal surrounding the sinking of the submarine Kursk.
Now it's payback time. Last week its powerful creditor Gazprom, goaded on by the Kremlin, cobbled together a majority of shares in NTV--and launched a coup. At an extraordinary meeting in Moscow, shareholders unceremoniously fired the board and tossed out the station's general director, Yevgeny Kiselev. His loyalists now expect a purge of their ranks--but they insist they will stick by him, no matter what. Journalists fear their new bosses, whose legitimacy they refuse to recognize, will use NTV's shaky finances as an excuse to impose a new editorial line. That line, they say, will be Putin's. To end the country's long slide into chaos and disintegration, the president seems to think he needs all the help he can get. And as he sees it, that does not include a free press nipping at his flanks. "Deep inside he finds it absurd that somebody has the right to publicly discuss his activities," one of his former aides recently told a Moscow newspaper.
The battle for NTV has long been brewing. Masked police have raided the station dozens of times over the past year, detaining employees and even jailing the company's founder, media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, for three days last summer. But now, almost 10 months after it began, the fight is ratcheting up dramatically. Mikhail Gorbachev, an NTV trustee and generally a conciliatory voice in Russian politics, spoke out with unusual fierceness. "We won't engage in any contacts with these usurpers," said the former president. NTV's journalists quickly went on strike. They temporarily banned advertising and all nonnews programming. In its place, they offered live footage of the company's studios, the staff massed to block a possible forcible eviction. Supporters brought in stocks of groceries. Protesters gathered in front of the building.
The standoff is only just beginning, and much will be at stake in likely negotiations. As they hunkered down last Thursday, NTV's journalists received a visit from a man they regard as the Kremlin's proxy--Alfred Kokh, head of Gazprom's media holding company. If it weren't for $473 million worth of loans that Gazprom had guaranteed from an American bank, Kokh informed them, "NTV would have gone broke a long time ago." The journalists, in no mood to be grateful, refused to give in. Some looked hopefully to Ted Turner, who has bought a 30 percent stake for $225 million.
NTV's journalists don't need to look far to justify their worst fears. Last week another of Gusinsky's media holdings, the news magazine Itogi, which is published in cooperation with NEWSWEEK, found itself in similar difficulties. Gazprom recently claimed a majority stake in the company, and Itogi's journalists now say that there are moves afoot to lock them out and replace them with an editorial board that would be less critical of the government. "We're preparing the issue, and we're assuming that it's the last one," says editor Sergei Parkhomenko, adding that the new team of journalists intended to supplant them is already working one floor up in the same building. This week Itogi promised readers that it would continue to put out the magazine regardless, even if under a new name and a new publisher. The current publisher, Dmitry Biryukov, insists that nothing of the sort is necessary. "Itogi is independent and will remain so," he said. "Our publishing house doesn't depend on anyone financially."
NTV still has some fight left in it. Journalists in Russia and abroad have been sending messages of solidarity. A demonstration supporting the network--the second in a week--drew a crowd of some 10,000 on Saturday. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, visiting Russia over the weekend, gave an interview to the Gusinsky radio station Ekho Moskvy, a clear sign of support for NTV. By the weekend Kiselev and his supporters were appealing to Putin to bring the NTV case before Russia's Supreme Court--albeit with little hope that will actually happen.
For all the solidarity and words of defiance, NTV's prospects look bleak. Two top journalists, Leonid Parfenov and Tatyana Mitkova, defected from Kiselev's camp late last week, accusing him of holding staff "hostage" to his personal ambitions, and the Gazprom side expect more to follow. Even among the most stalwart employees, the sense is that NTV's time may be up. "This is my family, and for me it's a huge personal tragedy," says anchorwoman Marianna Maksimovskaya. "They are destroying the best television company in the country." If that indeed comes to pass, the loss is guaranteed to ripple through an already demoralized press.A STATEMENT FROM NEWSWEEK
Newsweek is carefully monitoring the present struggle for control of the media in Russia, and what it may mean for the future of the free press in that country. At the heart of that controversy is Media-Most, which has published the newsmagazine Itogi in cooperation with Newsweek over the past five years. Now, the ownership of Itogi is being disputed. But its editorial freedom must remain beyond dispute.
Newsweek is proud of its association with what is now widely recognized as Russia's first high-quality, fully independent magazine. We are convinced that Itogi's success is due to the effort of its editorial team, headed by Sergei Parkhomenko and Masha Lipman. We would be deeply concerned by any significant changes in staff or editorial policy of the magazine, and we are prepared to do anything we can to help preserve Itogi's quality and continued independence.