New managers seize Russian TV network

Journalists reject offer to resume work under state-run gas company

April 15, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The 11-day-old attempt by staffers at Russia's only national independent television company to defend their station against a hostile takeover ended early yesterday when the new management sent in guards and seized control.

The new bosses said the takeover is related to debts run up by NTV, but the embattled journalists defending their station said the fight concerns freedom of the press.

NTV is controlled by a team answering to Gazprom, the state-owned natural-gas monopoly that has been a reliable instrument of the Kremlin's will.

Boris Jordan, the U.S. businessman appointed by Gazprom to run the channel, said his team would make it free from outside influence.

"Now we will have free speech, now we will have independence of the media," Jordan said. He said he had detected "tremendous enthusiasm to rebuild" NTV and was putting the final touches to a $20 million syndicated loan to refinance the channel.

After seizing the building about 4 a.m. yesterday, the new management told journalists to sign a commitment of loyalty. Most refused and moved to the nearby studio of TNT, a small station affiliated with NTV. From there they began broadcasting on NTV's signal, but shortly after the first news program came on at 8 a.m., the signal was cut off.

In a graphic display of what Russia will miss with NTV under Gazprom's control, the first news broadcast at NTV that went out after the takeover was completed made no mention of the events that had just happened at the station.

"Now we have what the other side said would not take place -- an armed seizure," NTV representative Tatyana Blinova told the Interfax news agency.

Igor Malashenko, one of NTV's founders, called the move a "creeping coup."

On the Ekho Moskvi radio station yesterday, Malashenko said the Kremlin put the seizure into motion. The authorities, he said, "are wielding all the resources of the state to fight this war."

The journalists at NTV have in the past lent themselves to crusades -- one of them being the re-election of Boris N. Yeltsin as president in 1996 -- but recently their crusading has been mostly aimed at providing viewers an alternative source of news to the two other networks, both run by the government.

NTV has been providing more thorough, and more disturbing, reports on the bogged-down war in Chechnya than either of its competitors. Its satiric puppet show "Kukly" has regularly mocked the Kremlin, the circle around President Vladimir V. Putin and Putin himself.

The president has been single-minded about "strengthening the state" and assuring that all power spreads outward from the Kremlin, and in practice his view has been that any news report that contradicts the Kremlin's line is by nature disloyal.

The showdown began April 3, when Gazprom convened an extraordinary shareholders' meeting, saying it had enough votes to change the management. NTV management disputed that claim but has been unable to win in the courts. Alfred Kokh, who was involved in a privatization and bribery scandal five years ago, was named chairman, and Jordan, who also has been a dealer in privatization schemes, became general director.

They were moving against the team installed by Vladimir Gusinsky, a tycoon who is in Spain fighting a Russian extradition warrant.

For nearly two weeks, NTV journalists led by the previous general-director, Yevgeny Kiselyov, held the studio building and continued broadcasting. A week ago, fairly large public demonstrations were held in Moscow and St. Petersburg in support of NTV. At the same time, though, a steady trickle of journalists defected; some accused Kiselyov of unsavory and unethical tactics in his efforts to save the station.

Oleg Dobrodeyev, who had helped found NTV but later moved to the state RTR network, had denounced Kiselyov last week. But he resigned his post at RTR yesterday in protest over the takeover.

"To me personally, one of the people who built NTV, it's a betrayal by insolent, cynical, cowardly people," said Kiselyov, who rushed back from Spain after meeting there with Gusinsky. "They've ruined NTV, which was my home."

Blinova said she thought the seizure was timed to take advantage of his absence.

Kiselyov later told a meeting of hundreds of dissident NTV employees that he had accepted an offer to become acting general director of TV6, an independent channel with a smaller reach.

Former NTV employees said they would continue to broadcast news and current affairs on TNT for at least two months while plans to found a new independent network were thrashed out.

Throughout the standoff, Putin has remained uninvolved. On Friday, 129 NTV staff members signed an open letter to the president, which was posted on the channel's Web site, calling on him to "intervene and ensure a legal solution to the conflict."

But the president declined.

"I don't think I should wade into that mess and clear up what has accumulated over recent years," he said.

He sought to make headlines of his own yesterday with an impromptu visit to Russia's breakaway Chechnya region.

State-run media made the unannounced visit their top news item.

Oleg Sapozhnikov, Jordan's press secretary, said he was not seriously concerned by the decision of many of NTV's top journalists to leave the company.

"They are currently being affected by their emotions," he told Interfax. "There are grounds to assume that the majority of them will come back."

Wire services contributed to this article.

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