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The Moscow Times, June 3, 2004

NTV Sends Parfyonov Packing

By Caroline McGregor

Sergey Ponomarev / AP
Parfyonov's "Namedni" came in first in a recent city poll of social-political shows.
NTV fired star journalist Leonid Parfyonov in a dramatic decision that his colleagues and media experts decried Wednesday as the latest setback to press freedom.

Parfyonov was fired for breaking his contract, which required him to "support the policies of the company's leadership," according to the statement signed by NTV general director Nikolai Senkevich.

His weekly current affairs program "Namedni," one of the station's top-rated shows, was canceled.

Parfyonov unleashed a public scandal by releasing to Kommersant an internal memo ordering him to cut an interview with the widow of a slain Chechen separatist leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, from his show's broadcast last Sunday because it could negatively influence the ongoing trial of two Russians charged with the murder.

The show went ahead without the five-minute segment, but Parfyonov said the decision forcing him to drop it amounted to censorship.

And, he added bitingly in an interview given to Izvestia after that decision but before he was fired, "I do not need to be taught to love my Motherland."

Some of the debate Wednesday swirled around whether Parfyonov had forced NTV's hand by going public, but Parfyonov told Ekho Moskvy that his contract only barred him from giving interviews to competitors, and whether or not his comments to Kommersant can be construed as such is unclear.

"I was expecting it sooner or later," Parfyonov told The Associated Press. "Everything was leading up to it."

What complicates the picture further is that, in Senkevich's absence, the contentious memo was issued by Alexander Gerasimov, who, in addition to his position as deputy general manager for political and information programming, hosts a current affairs show of his own, called "Lichny Vklad," which rivals "Namedni."

Savik Shuster, host of the NTV talk show "Svoboda Slova" and perhaps the only independent voice left at the station, called Parfyonov's ouster "an enormous loss for the channel," The Washington Post reported.

But he said Parfyonov has served as a "whistleblower" in a way that might help. "Now -- at least for a short period -- I don't think anyone will threaten my program,'' Shuster was quoted as saying.

Among Moscow viewers, "Namedni" was the top social-political program for the last week in May, according to TNS Gallup Media ratings published Tuesday in Kommersant. The week before, it came in second to Channel One's weekly news wrap-up, "Vremya."

Taken overall, it was NTV's most popular program together with a series about the life of single women, "Balzakovsky Vozrast."

Such high market share means high advertising revenues, which NTV has now jeopardized along with its reputation, said Yasen Zasursky, the dean of Moscow State University's journalism faculty.

"It's a bad day for Russian television," he said, calling the decision proof of NTV's infamously bad management.

He added that NTV's decision to sacrifice its best asset over a minor dispute damages its claim to being an independent channel.

Alexander Khinshtein, a United Russia State Duma deputy and a journalist, acknowledged that there would be "noticeable damage" to the Kremlin's reputation as well, since it is perceived as being behind all negative events in the media, according the web site Newsru.com.

The decision to fire Parfyonov was announced at 11 p.m. Tuesday night. But many of the journalists who worked for him on "Namedni" and "Strana i Mir," a late-night news program he launched as a training ground for proteges, only learned the news from reporters seeking their comment.

Where the newly unemployed Parfyonov will land is not clear. He demurred every time he was asked of his future plans Wednesday, saying he planned simply to rest.

As for what will become of "Strana i Mir," he told Interfax that was "beyond my control now."

Mikhail Seslavinsky, the head of the Federal Press Agency, met with Parfyonov on Wednesday evening and told Interfax afterward that "if needed," his agency could offer financial grants to help Parfyonov develop new projects because such a talented journalist "should not be lost."

NTV journalist Pavel Lobkov, who worked for "Namedni," played down the chances of a walk-out similar to the one led by Yevgeny Kiselyov when the private station was acquired by Gazprom-Media, a company partly owned by the state.

"Leonid was always opposed to any kind of mass actions and believed that such issues aren't resolved on public squares," he was quoted by Interfax as saying.

In his statement, Senkevich called Parfyonov "unconditionally one of the most talented journalists working in contemporary Russian television." But, he said, "this incident was not the first."

Parfyonov's relationship with station management had been rocky since Senkevich was brought in last spring to replace Boris Jordan, with whom Parfyonov had worked closely.

Shortly after Senkevich was installed, Parfyonov and his show took an extended leave of absence in February 2003, with "Namedni" producer Nikolai Kartoziya explaining that they could not "guarantee the quality of their product."

Things were smoothed over, and "Namedni" returned to the air three months later, in May.

In November, though, its journalists knocked heads again over a decision by Senkevich to yank a "Namedni" segment on Yelena Tregubova, a journalist whose account of a meeting with President Vladimir Putin he judged to be "vulgar."

Parfyonov, 44, had worked at NTV since 1993, making a reputation for having an ironic tone and, in contrast to Kiselyov, being apolitical.

Despite their differences, Kiselyov said Wednesday that he was pained by Parfyonov's dismissal. "Regardless of however difficult relations between us may have been, everyone loses from the loss of Parfyonov and 'Namedni,'" he told Ekho Moskvy.

Ekho Moskvy's television observer, Yelena Afanasyeva, said press freedom had not disappeared, though the trend was in that direction.

"NTV still has space to, say, not open the news program with Putin's meeting some minister and instead be the first to show footage of a terrorist explosion in Grozny," she said. "But that space is constantly shrinking."

Yelena Savina, a producer for NTV's evening news program "Segodnya," framed the firing even more starkly.

"The Kremlin never trusted Parfyonov. We, as newspeople, understand that this serious attack is a warning for us. I see this as the first attack in a pre-planned campaign," she told Newsru.com.


See also:

the original at

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

The Moscow Times, June 3, 2004

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