[home page][map of the server][news of the server][forums][publications][Yabloko's Views]

The Moscow Times, July 8, 2004

NTV to Abandon 'Freedom of Speech'

By Caroline McGregor

Savik Shuster
The "Svoboda Slova" political debate show hosted by Savik Shuster, and three other NTV programs with a political bent, seemed slated Wednesday to be pulled off the air by the station's newly installed, Kremlin-friendly executive team.

Both new NTV general director Vladimir Kulistikov and Shuster refused to comment on the fate of the show, saying no final decisions had been made. But the news, first reported Wednesday afternoon by several Internet-based news agencies, was confirmed by sources within NTV and the media community.

"Friday's 'Svoboda Slova' will be the last one," an NTV news division employee said on the condition of anonymity.

"Svoboda Slova," or "Freedom of Speech," is perhaps the only remaining program on Russian television that promotes political debate and allows more or less unrestricted criticism of the Kremlin.

The other programs that seemed destined to disappear are "Lichny Vklad," hosted by Alexander Gerasimov, and "Strana i Mir," the 10 p.m. news program, along with "Krasnaya Strela," the animated political satire that follows it.

After Leonid Parfyonov's news magazine program "Namedni" was axed last month, it is largely these programs that have distinguished NTV, owned by state-controlled Gazprom, from the two state television channels, which are totally under the Kremlin's thumb.

Intriguingly, the first to report Shuster's impending departure was the Agency for Political News, or APN, which is linked to Stanislav Belkovsky, a Kremlin-connected political analyst who has advocated stronger state control in society. The APN report cited a source in the presidential administration.

NTV's management issued a statement late in the day Wednesday saying that "active work" was under way on a new programming schedule for the fall season, which begins around the first of September, but that there was no reason to fear that press freedom was under threat.

"NTV will remain an independent channel for social-political and information broadcasts," Kulistikov was quoted in the statement as saying. He added that no final decision had yet been made concerning any program.

Until his appointment Monday at NTV, Kulistikov was director of news programming at the Rossia channel and deputy chairman of its parent company, state broadcaster VGTRK.

Reached by telephone Wednesday afternoon, Shuster said he was unable to give any comment because his relationship with the station was still under discussion. Two members of his show's staff said they had not been informed of any decision and were continuing to work on the program for this coming Friday.

APN suggested that Shuster could stay on at NTV to make documentaries for the channel. Interfax, citing its own source, reported that Shuster might be offered the post of deputy general director for one of the channel's divisions.

It is not clear whether Shuster would consider such an offer from Kulistikov, who worked under him at U.S.-funded Radio Liberty for much of the 1990s. Shuster was Moscow bureau chief and Kulistikov was chief editor.

Shuster, a Canadian citizen of Lithuanian descent, started hosting a soccer show on NTV in 1998 while maintaining his post at Radio Liberty. He was an outspoken critic of Gazprom-Media's takeover of the station in the spring of 2001 from Vladimir Gusinsky. Nevertheless, he agreed to stay on under the new management team, launching "Svoboda Slova" shortly thereafter.

In an interview with The Moscow Times last fall, Shuster seemed to be chafing at the bit somewhat. The station's managers had ordered several of his shows to be run pre-recorded, rather than live, to appease a Kremlin that had accused Shuster of stoking public emotions by bringing relatives of Dubrovka hostage crisis victims onto his show in October 2002. Shuster hinted in the interview that NTV, and Russian television for that matter, were not the only places he could work.

The future journalism career of Shuster's colleague Parfyonov also remained open. Parfyonov was sacked last month by former general director Nikolai Senkevich after going public with his bosses' decision to block him from airing an interview with the widow of Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.

In an interview published Tuesday, Senkevich seemed to leave open the possibility that Kulistikov might bring Parfyonov back to NTV, since the two men are friendly. "The decision is Kulistikov's," he told the newspaper Gazeta.

The Interfax source said Wednesday that Parfyonov's return was "theoretically possible, although there won't be any talk of 'Namedni.'"

That seemed to corroborate predictions of "Lichny Vklad"'s demise, since the acrimonious relationship between Gerasimov and Parfyonov is well known and few media insiders believe there is room at the channel for both of them.

Yet, logically, the return of Parfyonov and the cancellation of "Strana i Mir" should also be mutually exclusive, since he created the show.

Manana Azlamazyan, the executive director of Internews, an international nonprofit organization supporting independent media, said, in any case, the trend at NTV is worrying.

"It seems like step-by-step the space for balanced, free, interesting programs on TV is shrinking," she said. "It's bad for viewers and it's bad for NTV's reputation."

Yevgeny Kiselyov, who was NTV's editor and hosted its flagship show "Itogi" under Gusinsky's ownership, was less inclined to mince words. "I'm in shock. This looks like a pogrom," he said. "'Svoboda Slova' was the last remaining arena on Russian television for more or less critical debates. We don't have another program like this at all."

Viktor Shenderovich, a political commentator on Ekho Moskvy radio who used to host a satirical show on NTV, said he was not shocked. "Nothing here is surprising. Everything was decided three years ago," when Gazprom-Media took control of the station, prompting the departure of a core team of journalists, including Kiselyov and Shenderovich.

"Kulistikov is just a pseudonym," said Shenderovich, known for his scathing criticism of the man who worked with him at NTV from 1997 to 2000. "He's not independent. He will do what he's told."

Kiselyov, now editor of the weekly newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti, said it was his understanding that the programming changes at NTV were part of a broader change in management that could prompt another mass exodus of journalists.

The question is where they would go, he said. The moderately feisty Ren-TV is one option, but with Unified Energy Systems announcing it will sell its controlling stake, Kiselyov said he expected major changes there, too.

By the end of the year, it will be hard to differentiate the news on these "independent" stations from the news on state channels Channel One and Rossia, he said. "Television will look like the old Gosteleradio of the Soviet Union, just on different channels."

Like NTV, radio station Ekho-Moskvy is owned by Gazprom-Media, but thus far has remained an oasis of independent news and commentary. But Kiselyov was not optimistic.

"NTV is a definite indication that the government does not care about public reaction, its international reputation, journalistic freedom or the right of the people to get information from all sides," he said. "Ekho will be next. I have no doubt about that."

Staff Writer Denis Maternovsky contributed to this report.


See also:

the original at

NTV Case

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

The Moscow Times, July 8, 2004

[home page][map of the server][news of the server][forums][publications][Yabloko's Views]

Project Director: Vyacheslav Erohin e-mail: admin@yabloko.ru Director: Olga Radayeva, e-mail: english@yabloko.ru
Administrator: Vlad Smirnov, e-mail: vladislav.smirnov@yabloko.ru