A KREMLIN-BACKED consortium claimed victory yesterday in a hostile takeover of Russia’s only independent national television station, putting press freedom in jeopardy even as President Putin boasted of strengthening the Russian state.
The future of NTV, the only station that regularly criticises Mr Putin, was in grave doubt after a boardroom coup. Yevgeni Kiselyov, the director-general, one of Russia’s best-known television faces, was replaced by Boris Jordan, 33, a millionaire US-born invest- ment banker who lacks any hands-on media experience.
Throughout the 1990s NTV, a channel that was built from scratch by Vladimir Gusinsky and a team of journalists, provided Russia’s only television news that was not under close Kremlin scrutiny. Mr Gusinsky is under house arrest in Spain as Moscow attempts to have him extradited on fraud charges.
The takeover was engineered by three groups of investors led by Gazprommedia, an arm of Russia’s state-run gas monopoly. After claiming a controlling 50.44 per cent stake, they ousted Mr Kiselyov and announced a financial rescue package for NTV, which has been desperately but unsuccessfully searching for a friendly foreign investor for several months.
The move came as Mr Putin pointedly avoided any direct mention of press freedoms during his annual state-of-the-nation speech to Russia’s combined houses of parliament. He urged officials to “make any departure from democratic liberties impossible” and gave warning that “many of Russia’s problems are rooted in the citizens’ long-held mistrust of the authorities”.
Mr Putin spent most of the speech on a strikingly reformist economic agenda, pledging to remove ineffective currency regulations that have not prevented capital flight from Russia at a rate of £14 billion a year. Building a civic society did not, however, appear to feature in his vision.
Last weekend 20,000 supporters of NTV gathered in Pushkin Square. Grigori Yavlinski, head of the liberal Yabloko party, said then: “We know why they want to destroy NTV — so that we will never know about millions of dollars being taken out of the country or about how a war is being conducted under slogans of fighting terrorism and corruption.”
NTV has been used by its proprietor for political smear campaigns, but nevertheless it built a reputation for solid journalism with unflinching coverage of the first Chechen war and reports on the bleaker realities of Russian life. It was the only national channel to air allegations of Kremlin corruption during the final years of the Yeltsin era.
Mr Jordan, who set up Moscow’s Renaissance Capital investment bank and now runs a Moscow-based investment fund, said that he had no intention of becoming involved in politics and would resign if pressured editorially.
He called the channel’s financial situation “catastrophic” and added: “This company was built on credit. In the United States, where I grew up, it would have to be shut down within a week.”
Mr Kiselyov and dozens of NTV journalists signed a letter refusing to recognise decisions taken by the new board. Last night they formed a human backdrop for the channel’s news bulletin, broadcast with a red protest sign in the corner of the screen. Later journalists and top executives at NTV blocked off an entrance to their headquarters and held a late-night sit-in in a bid to thwart the takeover.
Among the foreign investors approached by Mr Gusinsky without success was Ted Turner, the founder of CNN. Mr Jordan said yesterday that he hoped to work with Mr Turner.
The Moscow Times said in an editorial that the Kremlin’s insistence that the Media Most/Gazprom dispute was purely a business matter was “a tired lie”,
adding: “We are sick of watching a cowardly Putin hide behind it.”
The original at http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,3-109259,00.html