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Russia: Two More Media-MOST Outlets Closed Down

  • Sophie Lambroschini

In the wake of last week's takeover of Russia's independent NTV network by the partially state-owned Gazprom monopoly, authorities have seized two other media outlets belonging to magnate Vladimir Gusinsky. Journalists at the weekly "Itogi" and the daily "Segodnya" say this week's actions add up to another attempt to muzzle press freedom in Russia. But at the same time, Gusinsky's old team at NTV is itself now under attack for ousting journalists from another channel that gave the NTV journalists jobs.

Moscow, 19 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For Russian media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, the only break in a recent string of bad news was a Spanish court's ruling yesterday (17 April) not to extradite him to Russia, where he faces fraud charges.

The court's decision was announced barely 36 hours after two more independent news outlets in part owned by Gusinsky's Media-MOST group -- the daily "Segodnya" and the weekly "Itogi" -- were effectively taken over by the giant gas monopoly, Gazprom, which is partially owned by the state. The takeovers came just days after the papers' sister NTV network had also been formally put under the control of a new, state-backed Gazprom management.

"Segodnya," which had been a regular critic of Kremlin policy, was shut down Monday night by its publisher Sem Dney. The next day, the same publisher also dismissed the staff of the liberal weekly "Itogi."

In all three cases -- NTV as well as "Segodnya" and "Itogi" -- journalists have resisted the new Gazprom management, which they say will curtail their editorial freedom and push them into the realm of state-owned media.

"Segodnya" is partially owned by Media-MOST. But two other shareholders -- Gazprom and Sem Dney Director Dmitry Biryukov -- were able together to order the closure of the paper, shutting down production in mid-issue on Monday night (16 April).

The following morning, "Itogi's" staff was prevented from entering their building. Biryukov then fired them en masse, saying they had failed to attend a conference he had organized.

Sergei Parkhomenko, "Itogi's" chief editor, was dismissed Monday night. He says the NTV takeover was just the first in a link of related events aimed at muzzling Russia's free press:

"In fact, the link is very deep -- [Itogi, Segodnya and NTV] are part of the same media company, part of the same corporation, with the same professional principles. And apparently, the authorities had the same kind of grievances against all of us."

The U.S. magazine "Newsweek," which in a partnership with "Itogi" had allowed the Russian weekly the use of the American weekly's logo on its cover, yesterday announced that it intended to suspend its collaboration.

"Itogo's" new management says the change in editorial personnel was dictated by financial considerations, not by politics. But chief editor Parkhomenko says that Biryukov of Sem Dney simply wants to replace Gusinsky's teams with his own:

"The state is trying to work out a new system of relations with the information sphere. It is setting up new rules, not of the game -- because this is not a game, it's very serious -- but the new rules of cohabitation. And the state is trying to figure out for itself, and make clear to others, whether journalism is possible in this country."

Biryukov, however, says that "Segodnya" was losing $3 million a year and that he could no longer find enough advertising to support the paper:

"About two months ago, when I looked at the financial plan for next year and then looked two or three years ahead with a report from our advertising department, it became clear that we didn't have enough [in advertising revenues] to finance 'Segodnya.' [Sem Dney] would have had to put in another $3 million. After that I conferred with the management of the publishing house and with many other people, and made the decision that it was necessary to close 'Segodnya.'"

At the same time, the old team of NTV journalists who had refused to go along with Gazprom's takeover of their network are themselves now under attack by journalists at channel TV-6, whose jobs they were invited to take over. TV-6 journalists are furious about being replaced by the NTV team.

In an open letter published earlier this week, the TV-6 journalists accused Gusinsky's managers of pulling the same trick on them as Gazprom had pulled on NTV -- a hostile takeover where journalists' opinions were entirely ignored.

"We don't want to lose our own home that we also built from zero," the journalists wrote in their letter.

TV-6 news Director Mikhail Ponomaryov resigned yesterday in protest of Kiselyov's appointment. Ponomaryov was replaced by former NTV News Director Grigory Krichevsky.

In an interview with state channel ORT last night, Ponomaryov argued that while NTV journalists may have presented better news broadcasts, TV-6 had also done a very good job considering the channels' lesser means. In the same program, Ponomaryov appealed to other channels, including the new Gazprom-controlled NTV. "If a TV-6 journalist ever comes knocking at your door," he pleaded, "please take him in and find him a place."

Ironically, it was former Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky who offered the use of his own TV-6 channel to host a number of NTV's most popular programs. Former NTV Director and Editor in Chief Yevgeny Kiselyov was appointed editor in chief over the weekend, and beginning today NTV's highly professional team in effect took over all TV-6's news broadcasts, replacing the former TV-6 news team.

Berezovsky, like Gusinsky, is currently living abroad to avoid troubles awaiting him at home. In past years, the two media magnates have been bitter enemies, carrying on so-called "information wars" through their respective TV channels.

NTV journalist Viktor Shenderovich, who was among those who quit in protest over the new Gazprom management, last week summarized the lessons to be learned from Media-MOST's fate: "Don't take money from the government," he said. "And [remember that] television network owners function along the same lines as a guy who picks up a girl in a bar: 'If I pay for the girl's dinner, I get to dance with her.'"