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Russia: NTV Seen More As 'Alternative' Than 'Independent'

Last week's takeover of Russia's largest private television network has been widely seen as the latest move by the Kremlin to crack down on independent media. Some critics say, however, that NTV may not be as independent as press advocates would like. How free is the network whose takeover bid is being mourned as the death of independent media in Russia? RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks back at NTV's coverage of key Russian events like presidential elections, privatization, and the two Chechen wars.

Moscow, 13 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's state-backed Gazprom seemingly came one step closer today in its bid take over NTV, the country's only national television network not controlled by the state. Boris Jordan, the American businessman appointed by Gazprom as NTV's new general director, announced today that he had been cleared by immigration authorities and banks to take control of the network's finances and programming.

Jordan's claim, which is being disputed by NTV, comes as another blow to those who fear the takeover bid may spell the end to independent news coverage in Russia.

On Wednesday, the France-based Journalists Without Borders issued a report saying the takeover of NTV is the latest act in what it said was "months of continuous degradation of freedom of the press" across Russia.

Press advocates say the Gazprom takeover is a barely concealed attempt by the state to muzzle the seven-year-old network, which has sometimes been outspoken in its criticism of Kremlin policy. But other observers say NTV's reputation for independence -- from both its owner and the state -- is far from spotless.

Semyon Liberman, an independent media monitor and consultant whose clients include NTV competitor ORT, says NTV's news coverage is less about independence and more about "balanced reporting." He says that in this respect, NTV does offer an alternative to either state-controlled RTR or ORT:

"It [offers] a more balanced, a more objective attitude toward a news event. NTV doesn't limit itself like most of the other channels to one point of view, from one correspondent in one place. NTV usually has reports from several correspondents with several points of view. For example, in their coverage of the Chechen war, they try to show the opinion of more than one side. The same was true [in their coverage of the] 'Kursk' [submarine disaster.]"

In the case of the "Kursk," where for almost a week state officials maintained an optimistic line that the sailors could be saved, NTV was the first network to broadcast dissenting, less positive -- and ultimately more realistic -- news.

Another example can be found in the three networks' coverage of Russia's efforts last month to join the World Trade Organization. Both ORT and RTR reported that Russia had not yet joined the trade group because it wanted to "defend its national interests" from the drawbacks of the WTO's conditions. NTV, meanwhile, reported simply that any individual country's entry into the WTO is handled separately and on the basis of protracted negotiations.

Coverage of the end of the "Mir" space station also differed between the stations. Both ORT and RTR marked the occasion with emotional reports on Russia's achievements in space. NTV was more matter-of-fact, quoting the head of the "Mir" project as saying the station had surpassed its expected lifespan by 10 years.

For many viewers, the most obvious difference between NTV and the competition may simply be that NTV looks different. The network's sleek production style and professional team of young journalists instantly set it apart from the grayer, more staid appearance of its state-backed rivals.

Oleg Panfilov is head of the Center for Journalists in Extreme Situations, a Russian media watchdog group. He explains why NTV has always looked different from other news programming:

"NTV prepared a magnificent group of journalists that began delivering coverage on a good European level. These were people who knew how to use their voice, who look good [on camera] and who -- as opposed to [journalists on] other channels -- never lose their cool manner, [but] are quite uninhibited in their reporting and with the people they interview."

Panfilov says NTV also invested large amounts of money into making its news coverage more professional, adding it was the first to broadcast live from location via satellite uplink.

But analysts point out that while NTV's coverage may look better, that doesn't mean that it has always been free of bias. The most obvious blemish on the network's record came in 1996, when the network's then-president, Igor Malashenko, joined Boris Yeltsin's re-election campaign team.

At the time, Yeltsin's popularity had nearly evaporated, trailing far behind that of communist Gennady Zyuganov.

NTV, like many other media outlets, gave Yeltsin open support in its coverage. After Yeltsin was re-elected, NTV received generous loans from state-backed organizations and was granted national-network status and full-time broadcasting rights.

Oleg Dobrodeyev, the former head of NTV who left a year ago to join RTR, discussed this period in an open letter to Yevgeny Kiselyov, the now-ousted general director of NTV, which was published this week on the front page of the Izvestiya newspaper. In the letter Dobrodeyev accused NTV journalists of writing Yeltsin's campaign speeches.

Aleksei Pankin, editor of the weekly Sreda magazine, compared NTV's role in the campaign to selling its soul to the devil. He says:

"At the same time, NTV received every possible blessing from President Yeltsin. It received a license for the morning broadcasts. It received the loans that everyone is talking about now -- not only from Gazprom but also from other organizations controlled by the authorities. I think that after becoming so close to the authorities, there's no way back to real independence."

Indeed after 1996, NTV participated in the information wars raging between the country's oligarchs -- often serving as a mouthpiece for Vladimir Gusinsky, the owner of the Media-MOST holding company that includes NTV.

Media monitor Liberman notes that at the outbreak of the second Chechen war in 1999 NTV's coverage differed little from that of the other nationwide channels.

Liberman says that even after the November 1999 Istanbul summit, when foreign leaders criticized Russian military actions against civilians in the breakaway republic, NTV remained supportive of the government's Chechnya policy.

But that same month, NTV began to adopt a more critical line, showing footage of dead Russian soldiers and questioning the probable outcome of the conflict. Kiselyov's weekly news analysis program Itogi was the first to report that the number of Russian casualties was as high as in the first Chechen campaign.

Panfilov says this is where NTV made a difference to television viewers. While ORT and RTR focused almost exclusively on Russian victories, NTV offered an alternative by showing the "darker side" of the war:

"NTV decided to talk about this terrible war in a completely different way -- by filing reports from [Chechen] refugee camps. The refugees would talk about what they went through, what they saw, what was happening. And then NTV began doing reports from hospitals, showing maimed [Russian] soldiers and officers."

Pankin says regardless of who owns NTV, its news coverage will never be truly independent. But even for dissenters like Pankin, the prospect of losing NTV's alternative brand of coverage is upsetting.