Washington, 5 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The move by state-controlled Gazprom gas company to take over Russia's only independent television network NTV this week has been described by that network's defenders as the most serious challenge yet to freedom of speech in Russia.
Gazprom, the energy monopoly which is partially owned by the state, on 3 April moved to take control of NTV, a step the Russian government insists that it has nothing to do with but one that both journalists at the network and other media organizations say is clearly intended to rein in the most independent and critical television network in Russia today.
Kremlin officials continue to insist that the dispute between Gazprom and embattled media magnate and former NTV owner Vladimir Gusinsky which has now led to Gazprom taking control of the NTV board is a private financial dispute about the debt that Gusinsky, now facing extradition from Spain, owes Gazprom. But many Russians, journalist and non-journalist alike, view Gazprom's assumption of ownership as yet another effort by the Kremlin to silence public criticism of its actions.
When the transfer of ownership was announced, NTV journalists dropped normal programming and featured the following message on an otherwise blank screen: "In protest at the illegal attempt to change the board of NTV, only news programs will be broadcast." And the NTV journalists spent the night at the station's headquarters out of a concern that Gazprom's media group would seek to impose by force a new management.
Even as that confrontation was taking place, journalists and others in Russia and around the world spoke out against this action. NTV General Manager Yevgeny Kiselyov directly blamed President Vladimir Putin for Gazprom's action. "Putin unleashed this war against NTV and now makes out as if he has nothing to do with it," Kiselyov said.
Another Russian journalist, Kseniy Ponomareva, said that "Putin is not an opponent of free speech -- it just strikes him as absurd that someone should have the right to publicly judge his actions." And Oleg Panfilov, the director of Moscow's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, raised the specter of a return to a Soviet-style past.
"It is difficult to say what could happen if there is no NTV," he said. "In Russia, you will have a return to Central Television of the Soviet Union, which will show only propaganda and which will only talk about the president and say that everything is fine."
And former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced that he will continue to try to intervene with Putin on this issue, noting that when he called on 4 April, Putin's aides said that the president was occupied.
All of these statements come on the heels of a protest last weekend (31 March-1 April) organized by Yabloko and other democratic parties and groups in defense of NTV and against government attempts to gain editorial control of that independent network. And they reflect the conjunction of two developments.
On the one hand, ever more Russians depend on the electronic media and especially on television as their primary or even only source for news. Except for NTV, the other channels have kept to the government line on critical issues such as the war in Chechnya and human rights. In the absence of alternative sources of information, ordinary Russians are less likely to adopt positions critical of the government, and consequently the population is less likely to have an impact on the actions of the government itself.
And on the other hand, this Gazprom move to take over NTV appears to be part of an effort by the Russian government to use nominally private enterprises such as Gazprom to do its bidding. Such an arrangement inevitably tends to deflect outside criticism because it gives those in the government the ability to plausibly deny that they are in fact behind such moves.
The fight over NTV is certainly far from over, but the battle that the Kremlin and its allies appear to have won this week means that the backers of a free media in Russia face an uphill struggle in the future.