It was February 28, 2001. The battle for NTV television—the largest non-government national television network in Russia and its affiliates in the Media-Most empire founded by tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky—was at its height. The showdown was looming. Journalists throughout the world watched and waited as this battle about ownership seemed—from a distance—to hold within it a fight for press freedoms in a country not long accustomed to such ideas.
But more than a month would pass before NTV’s general shareholders’ meeting was held on April 3 by its largest single shareholder and creditor, the state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom. That day Gusinsky and his associates were removed from the board of directors, and U.S.-born investment banker Boris Jordan was appointed general director. In the early hours of April 14, Jordan and his new management team took control of the company despite passionate protests being waged since the takeover was announced. As Jordan arrived, a large number of journalists left, choosing not to work under this new leadership.
There has been much coverage in the international press of these recent events. But for those of us who’ve observed and written about this situation, it is not so much what has gone on since February but what has occurred during the past eight years in Russia that gives us a context for understanding why this happened and what its consequences might be.
On February 28, Yevgeni Kiselyov, then general director of NTV television and the country’s leading political commentator, was meeting with a group of European businessmen at a luxurious Moscow hotel. Speaking in his trademark slow and imperious manner, Kiselyov recounted the history of the channel’s bitter struggle with the Kremlin during the past year and a half, complete with seemingly unexpected debt collection, the prosecutors’ armed raids to confiscate the station’s documents, two arrests of Gusinsky, one in Moscow the other in Spain, and the possibility of a takeover by Gazprom.
Halfway through the session, Kiselyov said: “For me personally, NTV is the cause of my life. Not the Itogi [the weekly analytical show he anchored]—that’s just a hobby. I was one of the three men who began all this back in 1993. And to imagine that it will pass into the dirty claws of Mr. Kokh [head of Gazprom’s media arm]? No, it’s better to hold on to death!”
Having covered NTV’s ordeal for The Moscow Times, a foreign-owned English-language Moscow daily, I found nothing new in Kiselyov’s litany that day. I’d followed every episode of the battle as told by different parties, always struggling to pick grains of news out of a sea of propaganda. But the statement about “holding on to death” struck me then as a bad signal. Gusinsky, Kiselyov and other officials at NTV and its parent company, Media-Most, spared nothing in their accusations that President Vladimir Putin and his lieutenants were destroying the most professional and politically independent television network in Russia. They portrayed NTV as the last bastion of free speech in the country and claimed that they preferred to blow up the ship rather than reach a compromise when the new owners take over.
And that is exactly what happened. As Gusinsky said in one of his recent interviews, “NTV does not exist anymore.”
Antagonized by the long-standing conflict with the authorities, a large group of NTV journalists backed Kiselyov, declared the shareholders’ meeting illegal, and refused to hold discussions with the new management. For three days, they stopped all broadcasts other than news programs, which were largely dedicated to reporting news about their own situation. On the station’s televised logo they stamped the red letters “protest” and showed on the air how they were unwilling to listen to Kokh’s arguments when the new board chairman dared to come and face the angry barrage from journalists.
Thousands of Moscovites came for a rally outside Ostankino television channel to back Kiselyov and his team. When the protest subsided after several days and Kiselyov left for Spain to hold talks with Gusinsky, the new management took over. It was April 14, and many Russians were preparing for Easter.
In the wake of this change-over, many members of the former NTV news team left. Today, more cheaply produced versions of some of their programs appear on second-tier networks (Media-Most-controlled THT and Boris Berezovsky’s TV-6). Kiselyov accepted the post of TV-6 acting general director while erstwhile rivals Gusinsky and Berezovsky discuss a merger. A large group of TV-6 managers and journalists left the company in protest of this takeover—by Kiselyov’s team.
Meanwhile, back at NTV, those who decided to stay under the new management are now joined by other journalists, including those who left TV-6. Late in April and early in May several of those who’d left NTV returned to try working under this new management. The station broadcasts regular news now that is little different from what it produced before, including detailed coverage of international reaction to NTV’s takeover. There is a major difference, however: Gazprom-controlled NTV has toned down its criticism of the Chechnya war and concentrates its coverage on the pro-Moscow side of the conflict. At the same time, the number of lighter, more entertaining news reports, such as the birth of a baby elephant in a zoo, has increased.
Throughout the conflict, two versions of the events have competed for the attention of journalists who covered it. One version, projected by Media-Most officials and free press advocates, was that the conflict is purely political and the Kremlin is simply looking for ways to suppress critical media. The other version, projected by Gazprom-Media and the government, was that the conflict was pure business: Gazprom, which has invested about $900 million in Media-Most, both in direct investment and loans, had been completely ousted from any control of the company which it now wanted to reassert.
That control is now reasserted, along with a promise to “sanitize” the company’s finances and sell part of the company to international investors. CNN founder Ted Turner, who has publicized his plans to buy shares of NTV from both Gusinsky and Gazprom, is now mum about the progress of the deal.
Today, it’s crystal clear what has happened to NTV has its roots in Russian politics. However, these political overtones emerged not in the past year, when Putin came to power, but existed since the first days of the company’s beginnings in 1993. In an open letter to Kiselyov, published at the height of this recent series of events, one of NTV’s founders and acclaimed guru of Russian news journalism, Oleg Dobrodeyev, wrote that “from the very outset the company was not just Gusinsky’s but also the Kremlin’s.” In 1994, it obtained its licenses with the help of then-presidential property manager Pavel Borodin and Shamil Tarpishchev, President Boris Yeltsin’s tennis coach and Russia’s sports minister. Dobrodeyev, who left NTV after a conflict with Gusinsky and Kiselyov in January of 2000, now heads the state-owned television and radio conglomerate VGTRK, which runs NTV’s competitor RTR television channel. This process was also documented by Chrystia Freeland, former Moscow bureau chief of the Financial Times in her book “Sale of the Century.”
In his letter, Dobrodeyev wrote that he represented NTV in closed-door Kremlin meetings and described how NTV journalists advised Yeltsin on public relations during and immediately after his 1996 campaign and even drafted his radio addresses in 1997. NTV’s first president, Igor Malashenko, was a key member of Yeltsin’s campaign staff and, as Yeltsin wrote in his memoirs, “Midnight Diaries,” built an efficient “line of command” between the Kremlin and media.
“The channel’s moral capital that was earned during the first Chechnya campaign was actively transformed, by participating in the Kremlin’s actions, into real capital, including endless loans from state-controlled Gazprom,” Dobrodeyev wrote. When last year NTV sharply criticized the federal government’s policy in Chechnya, it was also not just an editorial decision, Dobrodeyev suggested. NTV’s management had hoped that another deal could be struck with the Kremlin: a softer line on Chechnya in exchange for an extension of millions of dollars in loans.
Nothing is black-and-white in Russian media decision-making. The fact that their bosses made deals with the Kremlin or decided to attack a certain faction in the government, as was the case in 1997 when Gusinsky lost his bid for the blocking stake in national telecom giant Svyazinvest, does not mean that all NTV journalists were always just instruments in the power games. In fact, Media-Most created the environment for some of the best journalistic talent to flourish at NTV. It paid the highest salaries in the industry and lured the most professional personnel and stars from competing channels.
The problem is that in being an integral part of post-Soviet Russian politics, NTV fell victim to this system. It backed the alliance of former Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov in 1999 parliamentary elections. At that time, Primakov was regarded as the most likely successor to Yeltsin. (ORT and RTR backed the pro-Putin Unity party.) Neither Primakov nor Luzhkov ran for president in March of 2000, in which the winner was Putin and he looked unfavorably on the channel’s earlier lack of support. With only two of Gazprom-guaranteed debts to Media-Most totaling $473 million, NTV and its sister companies could not survive in a normal business environment without Kremlin backing. (Consider that the nation’s entire advertising expenditures this year on television are estimated in the range of $320 million.)
Even before these elections, in the wake of the 1998 economic meltdown, the advertising budget had fallen by 70 to 80 percent, and media analysts—including me—wondered which media outlets would be shut down. Spending was tightened everywhere and, in the end, only one newspaper in Moscow merged with its sister publication. Not a single TV channel stopped broadcasting.
Where did these news outlets get their money? There were three possible places: from advertisers, foreign investors, and/or the Russian government. Now we have learned the degree to which the government subsidized the media, either directly in the case of state-controlled national networks (ORT and RTR) or indirectly, as in the case of Gazprom-affiliated NTV. But free cheese, as it is known, is found only in mousetraps.
On the other hand, Putin’s Kremlin knows too well the power of national television networks as propaganda tools. After all, Putin was brought to power with the help of shameless propaganda on the state-controlled ORT and RTR channels, and despite NTV’s efforts to the opposite. So the Kremlin’s desire to ensure that no such powerful weapon is in opposition to it is in harmony with Putin’s campaign slogan of “equally distancing” the authorities from the oligarchs and consolidating the power of the state.
Unfortunately, NTV journalists, who in past private conversations referred to Gusinsky as “our dear oligarch” turned—willingly or unwillingly—into instruments of his policies and preferences. Kiselyov and his team, who passionately protested the takeover, did so as politicians, as liberally minded citizens, and not just as journalists whose privileged position was being threatened.
But in this proposition, too, many of them have been consistent. For years, they have seen themselves as the vanguard of liberal politics in Russia and as promoters of westernizing reforms rather than just nonpartisan, independent reporters. “If we survive, that’s a chance for the whole country, for the whole people of Russia, to go in the same direction we are trying to go,” Kiselyov told PBS in March. Such a statement would better fit a leader of a political party rather than a commentator and television manager, not to mention a journalist.
Once Putin was elected, NTV had two options: either to compromise with the new political system or be destroyed. It chose the latter.
It is too early to predict the full range of consequences the fall of Gusinsky’s NTV will bring about for the Russian television market, politics and the journalistic profession. It is also not clear yet which shape Gazprom-controlled NTV will likely take as it recuperates from the shock of its beginnings. Instead, one can speak only about a few lessons Russian media should learn from the rise and fall of NTV.
- Truly independent media must be financially solvent, otherwise they have to rely on political money and become vulnerable to political battles. The present level of media expenditures can be maintained only with the coming of foreign investment, which is certain to generate new conflicts of interest.
- By equating its own fate to free speech in Russia, NTV has further devalued this relatively young and little-appreciated notion among the Russian public. According to an April poll by Public Opinion Fund, about half of Russians said the conflict represented a struggle either “for power” or “for money” and only seven percent said it was a “struggle against free speech.”
- Media legislation must be amended to include the shareholders and publishers, but there are concerns in trying to do so. In Russia, there are two conflicting laws regulating media: The law on mass media, adopted during a euphoric wave of liberal reform, stipulates that journalists have the right to elect their editor and an editor cannot be appointed without the consent of journalists. This law says nothing about media owners and publishers. There is also a 1996 law on private companies in which managers, including editors in media companies, are simply appointed by shareholders. There is interest among journalists in amending the law on mass media to regulate their relationship with owners. But some fear that in trying to amend this law (which doesn’t work now), some rights might be curtailed by the government. Last year, the Kremlin drafted the Information Security Doctrine—a conceptual document that both upholds press freedom but also speaks about the threat news practices might create for national security. This raises concern among advocates of free speech who worry this could happen if the law on mass media is revised.
- The collapse of NTV endangers the future of regional, privately owned television stations since they are also usually part of similar political alliances at the local level.
These lessons are valuable ones for journalists in Russia to absorb. But in today’s tough economic and political climate, the challenge will be in applying these lessons to the everyday job of trying to report and convey news.
Andrei Zolotov, Jr., a reporter at The Moscow Times, has reported extensively on this story for the newspaper’s English-language audience. He also won the John Templeton European Religion Writer of the Year award in 1997 for his coverage of religion in Russia. His articles can be read at www.themoscowtimes.com.