Russian powers pull media plug Shutdown: Government officials silence a television broadcast and warn a radio station of safety violations that could result in its closure.

November 21, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- It was the middle of another tumultuous day.

One Russian region threatened to secede, three secret police officers gave a press conference to declare they were not terrorists and killers, a pensioner set himself on fire on Red Square and the first stage of a new international space station blasted off into orbit.

And the nation's main television news program fell silent.

Court officers serving a debt collection order yesterday had impounded the cars and trucks belonging to ORT, the main TV channel and voice of the establishment, and its cameramen were unable to cover the news. The noontime anchor reported the seizure, read several wire service reports and ended the program after three minutes. The screen went still, except for a silent message. "You are watching ORT news," a notice informed viewers for the last 12 minutes of the newscast.

This was startling, even here, where each day reveals a new and unexpected turn in the national drama. Players and audience alike immediately began trying to figure out the plot. And it had many twists.

For while court deputies were ranging through ORT, crouching under the director's desk to count his telephones as he talked on one of them, fire officials were delivering some bad news to radio station Ekho Moskvy, informing the feisty station it could be shut down for safety violations.

"It can't be anything but political," said Sergei Dorenko, ORT's news director and evening anchor, who has a rich, mellifluous voice, impassive expression, and every hair in place.

"At first I thought it was just one of the usual problems, only more so," said Aleksei Venediktov, Ekho Moskvy's chief editor, whose emotions flit across his face, and every hair stands out of place.

"But compare it to what's happening to ORT, and it looks like an attempt to settle accounts with the mass media."

The Communists have been the most outspoken against the press. Just over a week ago, Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader, and other political sympathizers asked the government to set up a public committee to establish controls over Russia's television stations.

But their unhappiness is shared by politicians across the spectrum yearning for a more malleable press.

This week, court deputies arrived at ORT with orders to draw up an inventory of all of the station's equipment, in case it had to be sold to pay its debts. A $4 million judgment against ORT had been won by the Television Technical Center, which transmits the station's broadcasts.

What annoys ORT, Dorenko said in an interview, is that the government owns 51 percent of the station -- and it also controls the Television Technical Center. The other 49 percent is controlled by Boris A. Berezovsky, one of Russia's powerful financiers, who has numerous enemies.

In effect, Dorenko said, the government is suing itself for not paying its debts to itself.

"I think we will soon learn about the political reasons," he said. "In Russia, when somebody hurts you, they later come to your rescue. Usually, when it comes time to give you help, you have to pay."

Its opponents, he suggested, want to drive ORT into bankruptcy. Rescue would come in the form of new investors, who would control the station.

The Communists have already offered to find investors, he said. Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, who already controls a small television station in the city and wants to run for president, might also like to help, Dorenko said.

Venediktov speculates that the warnings from the fire inspector represent a long-term threat to the radio station, and the beginning of a campaign to find out how far the authorities can go in controlling the media.

"I think the Russian authorities do not like the press in general," he said. "The whole political elite is getting ready for elections and looking for levers of power they can control."

His station is still admired and cherished for broadcasting uncontrolled, from a secret location, throughout the failed coup of August 1991. "We're looking for other places now," he said. "Perhaps we can satisfy the fire inspectors. But there's no guarantee we won't be visited by the sanitary inspectors, and that they won't find cockroaches and seal the building up."

ORT was broadcasting normally when its 9 p.m. newscast came on the air yesterday. Dorenko reported that LogoVaz (the auto company controlled by Berezovsky) had offered the station cars. Viewers had also called in, offering to drive reporters and cameramen wherever they wanted to go, for free. Duma deputies raged at the government for embarrassing the nation. The court returned the car keys to ORT.

And Russians heard the news.

A despondent 66-year-old man had doused himself with gasoline and set himself afire at Red Square, perhaps emulating two Kurdish protesters who set themselves on fire near Red Square earlier this week.

The Duma approved a statement censuring the Russian republic of Kalmykia for threatening to leave the federation because it isn't getting money from Moscow.

And Dorenko broadcast another chapter of the KGB Files, a special segment of his news program. The drama began this week when five members of the FSB -- the current name of the domestic KGB -- called a press conference to accuse the security police of taking part in kidnapping, murder and extortion. One of them also said he had been ordered to kill Berezovsky last December.

Yesterday, another group of FSB officers gave a press conference to deny all the accusations and insist that the FSB had never broken the law.

"In the 20 years of my service in the FSB, I simply cannot imagine an unlawful order being given," said Col. Shankor Ishankulov.

A reporter suggested that human rights organizations had documented numerous abuses against Soviet citizens 15 and 20 years ago.

"I will have to repeat once again that this is nonsense," Ishankulov said. "This is something that cannot be."

Dorenko promised another segment in the KGB saga on Monday -- if the station is still on the air.

Pub Date: 11/21/98

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