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Russia: Moscow Rally Decries Media Clampdown

MOSCOW, April 17, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Some 1,500 protesters rallied in central Moscow on April 16 to protest the Kremlin’s clampdown on independent media, particularly television, and to call for greater media freedom.

The demonstration marked the fifth anniversary of Gazprom’s takeover of the independent NTV television network.

Protesters waved Russian flags and brandished banners with slogans such as "Kremlin, get away from TV,” "Censorship today, dictatorship tomorrow,” and "Channel One, stop lying.”

Democratic Role

The rally was attended by a number of prominent Russian journalists, including former NTV journalists who lost their jobs or deserted the channel after it was taken over by the state-controlled gas giant Gazprom.

Viktor Shenderovich, a former NTV presenter best-known for his axed satirical puppet show "Kukly” (Dolls), told the crowd of protesters that the authorities had proven "incapable of ruling a democratic country.” The state control of television, he said, is preventing the emergence of a strong opposition and an independent justice system. (Editor's note: Shenderovich runs shows on RFE/RL as well as the Ekho Moskvy radio station.)

"Present today are those who somehow symbolize what has happened to the press in Russia over the past five years, those who disappeared from broadcast," Shenderovich said on the sidelines of the protest. "A country in which press freedom disappears starts living very badly after a while.”

Famous protesters at the rally included Sergei Dorenko, a sharp-tongued anchorman who was fired from the ORT television channel in 2000, and Olga Romanova, a former presenter at REN-TV who was taken off the air in November.

Media Despair

NTV’s former general director, Yevgeny Kiselyov, was also present at the rally. He voiced little hope that the current leadership would relax its grip on the media.

"Unless the political situation in the country changes, unless the authorities change or - which I have little hope will happen -- suddenly wake up and change their course, little is likely to change on television. As for the reforms needed by television, I think the government must sell its shares in major television channels and retain only one channel.”

Gazprom took control of NTV, then Russia's only privately owned nationwide broadcaster, on April 14, 2001. Gazprom said the takeover was an attempt to recover multimillion-dollar debts owed by the channel’s parent company, Media-MOST, which is owned by media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky.

No Independent Voices

Press-freedom advocates - including former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev - condemned the move as a Kremlin-led campaign to rein in the last television channel critical of the Kremlin and the war in Chechnya.

NTV has considerably toned down its criticism since the takeover.

Gazprom has now taken control of Media-MOST’s key assets - the newspaper "Sevodnya,” the magazine "Itogi,” and Ekho Moskvy radio.

In June 2005, Gazprom acquired control of the leading independent daily "Izvestiya” from Interros, a vast holding company belonging to oligarch Vladimir Potanin.