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Russia: NTV Journalists Not Reassured After Meeting With Putin

President Vladimir Putin has met with journalists from NTV television in an apparent effort to reassure them their jobs are not threatened by the government's ongoing crackdown on Russia's only private TV network. The journalists present were not reassured, although they did use the occasion to demonstrate their solidarity in defending press freedom.

Moscow, 30 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The meeting yesterday in the Kremlin with Vladimir Putin provided the 11 NTV journalists with few assurances except that their station would remain, in the president's words, "as it is," and that he likes the channel. But those present say they did manage to show their solidarity, a trait usually absent in Russia's journalistic community.

After the meeting, NTV Director Yevgeny Kiselyov said that Putin had promised that the station's employees would not be replaced and that it would remain a non-state channel. Putin also said that foreign investment in NTV -- such as has been offered by Ted Turner of the U.S.'s CNN -- would be welcome. But Kiselyov was doubtful that the journalists were convinced.

NTV belongs to Media-MOST, Russia's largest private media group, which came under repeated harassment last year from law-enforcement agencies. The official reason given was the group's large debts, but many think the real reason is NTV's frequent criticism of Kremlin policies, including the war in Chechnya.

Almost 30 separate searches by often armed and masked law-enforcement agents have disrupted Media-MOST's work over the past six months. The group's chief executive, Vladimir Gusinsky, is under house arrest in Spain awaiting possible extradition to Russia on embezzlement charges.

In the latest attack on NTV, a Moscow court ruled today that the station must retract a report it aired about the Russian prosecutor-general having allegedly obtained a luxury apartment from the Kremlin and paid no taxes for it. The court said the station also must apologize to the prosecutor.

Some of the participants in yesterday's meeting allowed that the encounter might have a positive effect by making Putin's position on NTV public, thereby holding him accountable for his promises. Several NTV journalists said they hoped that their own show of solidarity had at least made clear to Putin that the government is facing a united group fighting for common principles and not simply individuals motivated by personal interests.

Svetlana Sorokina is a NTV talkshow host who attended the Kremlin meeting. She told RFE/RL:

"I hope that we proved that we are united employees, a united team, and that either [they will] have to crush us all together or somehow work out another solution to the problem."

Speaking last night on Ekho Moskvy radio -- also a part of Media-MOST -- anchorwoman Marianna Maksimovskaya hinted at the possibility of NTV journalists' resigning together if the authorities interfered editorially with the station. Today, on NTV itself, she explicitly said that if pressure on the station from the Prosecutor-General's Office continues, journalists will resign and will "not go quietly."

The show of a united front yesterday by NTV journalists was also significant because it was in sharp contrast to the usual absence of solidarity among Russian journalists. Many analysts say that the lack of collegiality among Russia's journalists is a major reason for the weakness of press freedom in the country.

Aleksei Simonov, head of the Glasnost press freedom defense fund, told RFE/RL: "By not being afraid to criticize Putin to his face, these united journalists showed that times have changed."

Vladimir Pozner, a talkshow host on state-run ORT, is one of the few non-Media-MOST journalists to speak out in favor of his NTV colleagues. Pozner told RFE/RL many Russian journalists fail to understand that their own freedoms are at stake in the government-NTV conflict. He said:

"For me, the main thing in all this is -- please excuse me -- [our journalists'] stupidity. By looking on silently or by washing their hands of the affair, [they show] they don't understand that how their colleagues are currently being treated is an example of how it will be for them shortly -- precisely because they are now silent."

The Kremlin meeting took place soon after Russia's gas giant Gazprom -- Media-MOST's chief creditor -- claimed it had already taken control of NTV. A Gazprom official said last week that Putin had made the maintaining of the current NTV editorial team his personal prerogative. The state is Gazprom's chief stockholder.

The meeting was actually scheduled after NTV's Sorokina appealed to Putin on 26 January during a protest against another NTV anchorwoman's questioning by the Prosecutor's Office over staff loans handed out by Gusinsky. Sorokina publicly demanded the president hear the NTV staff's complaints over what they see as months of official harassment for the channel's often critical views. Putin then called Sorokina and set up yesterday's meeting.

During the session, NTV's journalists tried to convince Putin that law-enforcement authorities are pursuing political and not judicial aims in their investigations into Media-MOST. But they seem to have failed. Participants said Putin stuck to his earlier statements that the Prosecutor's Office was only following the law and that he could not intervene.

Viktor Shenderovich, the creator of a satirical program on NTV who was present at the meeting, said afterwards that Putin seemed convinced the journalists were acting on specific instructions from Media-MOST chief Gusinsky. Shenderovich said that Putin implied that corporate interests, not press freedom, was therefore the real issue.

Shenderovich also said that Putin was unable to see the journalists as people expressing their personal opinions. "For him," Shenderovich said, "we [represent] a hostile system."