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Russia: Kremlin Critics Say Closure Of Independent Newspaper Fits Pattern

Staff members of one of Russia's most staunchly oppositionist newspapers suspended publication last week after its director was fired for alleged financial mismanagement. Currently negotiating over the paper's future, the paper's journalists say the dismissal put their editorial independence at risk in what observers agree is the latest advance in the Kremlin's drive to stifle press freedom.

Moscow, 6 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- From the time President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000, independent media in Russia have faced constant pressure over their criticism of the Kremlin. The issue reached global attention when nationally popular publications were taken over by state-connected companies. But smaller, lesser-known organizations have also either had to succumb to lawsuits and takeover bids or wage fierce battles to fend them off.

In the latest case, the "Novye izvestiya" newspaper suspended publication on 28 February after its director was fired, a move journalists said threatened the paper's independent editorial line.

"Novye izvestiya" has been one of the Kremlin's fiercest critics, something observers say virtually assured that it would face political pressure.

Oleg Panfilov, whose Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations has provided a leading voice in the defense of independent media, said the paper's reporting over the past several years has been boldly critical. "When I opened "Novye izvestiya" every day over the past year, the first question that would come to me was, 'When would it be closed down?' -- that is, what happened was expected," Panfilov said.

The shake-up at "Novye izvestiya" began last month, after publisher Oleg Mitvol fired editor Igor Golembiovskii from his second position as newspaper director. Mitvol said management had stolen money from the newspaper.

But the paper's journalists denounced the allegations as ridiculous, saying the reshuffle was actually the result of Kremlin pressure to bring the publication under greater control. The journalists are now seeking ways to retain control. Deputy director Valerii Yakov told RFE/RL the editorial staff was now "in negotiations" over the paper's future but declined to comment further.

Panfilov said the reasoning behind Golembiovskii's firing falls into a common pattern in which Kremlin-critical media are subject to what are ostensibly business disputes. "The explanation [for the closure] is completely incomprehensible. I think this incomprehensible reasoning hides the incident's political undercurrent," Panfilov said.

Panfilov added that Yakov told him the paper received threatening calls from Kremlin officials over its editorial line already last year.

The Kremlin has not commented on the matter. In similar cases in the past, it has either remained silent or insisted that it does not interfere in business disputes.

"Novye izvestiya" began publication in 1997, backed by oil-and-media mogul Boris Berezovskii, who owned 76 percent of the paper. Mitvol, a friend of Berezovskii's at the time, offered to manage, and then took formal control of, Berezovskii's holding.

The remaining 24 percent went to the paper's editorial staff, which still holds the shares. Berezovskii was at the time a top Kremlin power broker with control over ORT television. He played a large part in bringing Putin to power but fell out with the president shortly after his election to office.

Berezovskii soon left Russia; he now lives in London.

Berezovskii told RFE/RL that he paid for offices and equipment for "Novye izvestiya" and has financed the loss-making paper for the past five years to the tune of $150,000 a year. Commentators say that fact makes Mitvol's concern over financial misuse unconvincing.

Berezovskii said he asked Mitvol to sign his 76 percent back over to him two years ago but that Mitvol refused. Berezovskii added that Mitvol was previously averse to the paper's critical line but did not force the issue. "Apparently -- in light of upcoming parliamentary elections -- the authorities have recently been trying to take control of not only television channels but also of newspapers. That's why the events concerning 'Novye izvestiya' can be seen as part of the authorities' logical-enough scheme of behavior in placing all media under their control. I see Mitvol's flare-up of activity only in this context," Berezovskii said.

Berezovskii said he has offered to put aside claims to his shares and continue helping to finance the paper if Mitvol allows the newspaper's staff to continue working without changes and to make its own management decisions.

Berezovskii's holdings, however, are not the only ones to have come under attack. Vladimir Gusinskii, whose media holdings included leading independent NTV television, the liberal "Segodnya" newspaper, and the weekly magazine "Itogi," used his outlets to oppose the Kremlin's party in parliamentary elections in 1999.

Gusinskii was briefly jailed in 2000 after his media empire came under fire following Putin's election to office.

When a state-connected minority shareholder in Gusinskii's company forced a takeover of NTV in 2001, the news made international headlines.

Gusinskii's other media -- among the country's best and most liberal -- were also swallowed up. The businessman now also lives in exile.

Panfilov said the Kremlin has drawn up a blacklist of media that it intends either to close down or to bring under greater control. It allegedly includes the Ekho Moskvy radio station and the TVS television channel.

Ekho Moskvy, also a former Gusinskii property, is under pressure from controlling shareholder Gazprom-Media to change its editorial policies.

While major media outlets have toned down their criticism of the Kremlin, small newspapers such as "Novye izvestiya" led the effort to produce probing investigative journalism.

Among the most visible is "Novaya gazeta," which has stood out for its coverage of Chechnya and official corruption. It has also come under fire but has so far successfully fought for its independence.

A court last year ruled against "Novaya gazeta" in a $1 million libel suit brought by a regional judge. The paper had published a story alleging that the judge was living well beyond his means, saying he owned a $50,000 watch and was building a $1 million house on a monthly salary of $300.

Days later, the paper saw another suit, this one for $500,000, brought by a prominent Kremlin-connected bank for alleging its top executives were involved in a money-laundering scandal. The bank dropped the case after one of the paper's crusading investigative journalists showed the bank had faked losses it said came as a result of the paper's accusations.

"Novaya gazeta's" first deputy editor, Yurii Shchekochikhin, is also a Duma deputy. He agreed that the closure of "Novye izvestiya" represents the latest in the drive by officials to bring the press under greater control. "We know of big cases on the federal level. But exactly the same incidents are going on all over Russia. It's even more difficult for our colleagues to work there because there are constant killings and beatings of journalists. There's also pressure on the use of administrative resources to pressure the free press," Shchekochikhin said.

Meanwhile, Panfilov said he expects pressure from the Kremlin to continue. He said "Novaya gazeta" will face more problems in the future and that Berezovskii-owned papers "Kommersant" and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" might also come under fire.