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Russia: Moscow Media Boss Fired From Post Amid Accusations Of Kremlin Control

  • Gregory Feifer

Moscow is once again embroiled in a media controversy. Boris Jordan -- an American financier selected two years ago to lead a state-controlled company's takeover of the independent NTV television station -- has himself been fired from a key post. Jordan has seen relations with his media business partners steadily deteriorate, but critics say his ouster shows the Kremlin is once again trying to boost its control over the media in a parliamentary election year.

Moscow, 20 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two years ago, American investment banker Boris Jordan was hired by a state-controlled company and charged with taking over the media empire belonging to tycoon Vladimir Gusinskii.

Gusinskii, who now lives in exile, had helped bankroll the Kremlin's main political opposition in 1999, and his independent NTV television station had aired bitter criticisms of the government.

After President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, minority shareholder Gazprom-Media -- a subsidiary of the Gazprom natural-gas monopoly -- wrested away control of Gusinsky's financially ailing holding, including flagship NTV. Jordan was installed as station director.

Gazprom insisted the matter was entirely a business affair, with Jordan saying he would make NTV profitable while maintaining its independence.

The tables have now turned on Jordan. Fired from his post as Gazprom-Media director on 17 January, Jordan also looks set to lose his job at NTV after Putin criticized the channel for its coverage of Moscow's hostage crisis last October.

Jordan's replacement is Gazprom official Aleksandr Dybal. Repeating the line the company used on installing Jordan two year ago, Dybal said the matter is simply a question of management strategy. Speaking in televised statements, he referred to a deal last September to restructure Gazprom-Media with the participation of government-connected bank Evrofinance: "Gazprom is aiming to effectively manage and develop its media business together with our partners -- our new partners -- and with the Evrofinance Bank."

Jordan is an unlikely symbol of free speech, but critics say his removal is a sure sign the Kremlin is once again cracking down on opposing voices.

Boris Nemtsov is leader of the liberal Union of Rightist Forces. Speaking on TVS television yesterday, he said Jordan's ouster reflects a political decision in a parliamentary election year and constitutes part of the Kremlin's process of removing all potential criticism from the air. "Jordan and [his] team of managers succeeded in creating television that is really independent and popular. With the ouster of Jordan and [his] team, it's now clear that NTV is finally and irrevocably selling out to the state. It is television under censorship and under control," he said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, meanwhile, said the United States is "deeply concerned" about Jordan's firing.

Under Jordan's control, NTV lost its "oppositionist" credentials and softened its tone, but even skeptics agreed NTV continued to strive for independence, difficult in the state-dominated world of Moscow media. Jordan was also lauded for his efforts to streamline the station's management.

NTV had earned increasingly higher praise from media analysts in recent months, especially during the hostage crisis, after which Putin publicly lashed out in a thinly veiled attack on NTV.

During a November Kremlin meeting, Putin accused a nameless channel of showing live footage of special-operations forces preparing to storm the theater where Chechen rebels were holding around 800 hostages. Putin said the decision could have resulted in a "massive tragedy."

"Why were these things done? It's clear why -- and you understand this very well. To boost the channel's ratings, to boost capitalization. In the final analysis, to make money.... But not at any price! Money should not be made on the blood of our citizens! [That is] if, of course, the people who do this consider our citizens to be their own," Putin said.

Jordan denied the footage was shown live.

Officials also criticized NTV for hiring a lip reader to decipher Putin's words on a Kremlin video released without sound -- and for airing interviews with hostage relatives who urged an end to the war in Chechnya.

Putin has been called the country's first Information Age president for his skillful use of the media to portray himself as an active leader. Following his election, state media came under increasingly strict control as those seen as disloyal to the Kremlin were pushed out of their jobs. A number of independent outlets found themselves facing ruinous lawsuits.

Jordan's critics say his main goal has been to take over NTV for himself -- or at least some parts of Gusinskii's former media empire. In last year's restructuring deal, Jordan was given the option to buy 5 percent stakes in both Gazprom-Media and NTV.

But industry insiders have long said Jordan's relationship with Gazprom management has deteriorated amid ownership struggles and that the Kremlin has been upset with Jordan's refusals to accommodate editorial suggestions.

Jordan, who is of Russian descent, first made his name in Russia after setting up the Moscow offices of CS First Boston investment bank in the early 1990s and helping organize the country's first mass-privatization auctions, reaping huge profits. Jordan then went on to found his own investment bank, where he became embroiled in several high-profile scandals, earning him widespread notoriety.

Oleg Panfilov heads Moscow's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a press-freedom watchdog. He said Jordan failed to understand the nature of the business he entered two years ago. "Jordan essentially did the right thing by always saying that the free press was a business. But I think he didn't fully understand -- when he was appointed -- that in Russia, the free press is propaganda," he said. "If you don't listen to the Kremlin, you won't be allowed to work."

Panfilov added: "Jordan said too often in interviews that NTV would be an independent television station, that he would buy a controlling number of shares, that he would create the best television channel in Russia. That's why I think he's a naive American who didn't understand that the authorities will always control television -- at least under Putin." He said the authorities will now proceed to put NTV "on its knees."

Gazprom has said it plans to sell its media holdings but has made no move to do so.

Jordan may not take his ouster lying down. He has largely kept silent so far but is due to speak at a news conference tomorrow, where he is expected to announce his game plan.