14 May 2001, Volume 1, Number 14
INTERNATIONALEU INFORMATION ACCESS RULES CRITICIZED. The "International Herald Tribune" reports that the European Parliament on 3 May "overwhelmingly approved a set of rules guaranteeing individuals access to European Union documents." These rules set forth a transparency code to give citizens access to most EU preparatory and final documents. But the European Federation of Journalists, the European Citizens Action Service, the European Environmental Bureau, and the free-speech organization Statewatch, the paper reports, have "assailed the new rules as falling far short of Amsterdam Treaty's intent to guarantee the public's right to know." A section of the code which restricts access to documents -- which critics claim was drafted in secret -- is of most concern to these groups. Critics believe that the vague phrase that a document would "prejudice the public interest" could give bureaucrats too much discretionary power and also that member states have too much veto power over documents they submit to the EU and even to exclude references to such documents. ("International Herald Tribune," 4 May)
PRESS FREEDOM HISTORY PUBLISHED. The World Press Freedom Committee announced publication of a 228-page history of press freedom, written by media scholar Leonard R. Sussman. The book, "Press Freedom in Our Genes: A Human Need," traces the struggle for freedom of expression and of the press from cave artists to cyber-spatial news transmissions. The author maintains that the drive to seek and convey information is a fundamental human instinct, whose progress through history varies only with the nature and sophistication of the technology available. Sussman said, "with each new format humans struggled to break the chains of silence and of censorship." Publication of the 228-page book coincides with the 25th anniversary of the World Press Freedom Committee, a coordinating group for 44 free-press organizations on six continents. The WPFC works to monitor intergovernmental institutions' work on media freedom, to identify threats to press freedom, and to mobilize united action against news restrictions. For more, contact Marilyn J. Greene at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Internet: http://www.wpfc.org. (World Press Freedom Committee, 6 May)
'PREDATORS OF PRESS FREEDOM.' "The Irish Times" reported that the journalists' rights organization Reporters without Borders (RSF) published for the first time on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, a list of 30 "predators of press freedom." In addition to heads of state who preside over media-hostile regimes, the RSF includes two "predators" which are categories: the Basque nationalist group Euskdai ta Askatasuna (ETA) and the kidnapping mafia in Chechnya, the paper reports. According to the RSF, "more and more often, these predators [of press freedom] are not official representatives of a state." ("The Irish Times," 3 May)
ARMENIA'FREEDOM OF SPEECH' FILM AIRED. On 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, most Armenian TV channels showed an Internews TV film, "Freedom of Speech." Journalists of Russia, the U.S., Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan contributed to the production of this 14-minute film. The heroes of the film, people on the street, describe what freedom of speech means to them. The film, translated into various languages, was shown on 3 May in ten CIS countries by several hundred TV companies. The film can be viewed at the Internews Russia website: http://www.internews.ru/internews/Internews_Tele.html#Svoboda. ("Yerevan Press Club Newsletter," 28 April-4 May)
TV AND RADIO COMPANIES TO BE RE-LICENSED. All TV and radio companies of Armenia will soon have to apply to the National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR) for new licenses, as specified under Armenian broadcasting law. Within 30 days, broadcast companies must submit the required documents to the NCTR, rather than to the Ministry of Transportation and Communication as was previously the case. ("Yerevan Press Club Newsletter," 28 April-4 May)
JOURNALIST ASSOCIATIONS TO CONDUCT POLL ON KARABAKH. With funding from the Open Society Institute Network Media Program, the Yerevan, Baku, and Stepanakert Press Clubs have started an opinion poll of 1,000 people in Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively and 150 in Nagorno-Karabakh on possible ways to resolve the Karabakh conflict. There will also be in-depth interviews with 100 decision-makers, media leaders, and experts in Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively as well as 25 in Karabakh. ("Yerevan Press Club Newsletter," 28 April-4 May)
AZERBAIJANJOURNALISTS QUESTION ACCURACY OF RECENT MEDIA SURVEY. The recently published Freedom House press freedom survey rated Azerbaijan as among countries which do not have any press freedom. However, the non-governmental Journalists' Trade Union (JTF) stated Azerbaijan should join Armenia and Georgia as among those countries with a "partly-free" press rating. The JTF pointed the total inaccuracy of Freedom House's claim that "the Central Administration for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press still exercises control over press coverage." The JTF also noted that the survey provided inaccurate Internet information: rather than two Internet service providers (ISP), the country has over two dozen mostly independent or private ISPs; the government does not attempt to control the Internet; and last year Azerbaijan had 25,000 Internet users and not 8,000. Finally, the JTF claims that unlike in Armenia where the telecommunications sector is a state monopoly, in Azerbaijan that is not the case. (Journalists' Trade Union, 8 May)
PRESS AND INFORMATION MINISTRY ELIMINATED. President Aliyev issued an order on 19 April which dissolved the Ministry of Press and Information, reported the paper "Zerkalo." At this point, it is unclear what structure, if any, will replace the ministry. Already in November of last year, Press Minister Sirvuz Tebrizli lost his post; he believes that a new press structure may be formed as part of the presidential apparatus. ("Zerkalo," 28 April)
JOURNALISTS RELEASED FROM DETENTION. On 28 April, Heidar Oguz and Jasur Mammadov, correspondents of the newspaper "Huriyyat," were released from prison, reports the "Democratic Congress Bulletin." They were detained during a 21 April protest action organized by the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan [ADP] under the slogan "Freedom to Political Prisoners." Violence was used against the journalists as the police dispersed the protestors. The two journalists were brutally beaten by police as they were hauled off to the police station. Fazil Gazanfaroglu, Popular Front deputy chairman, expressed his appreciation for the journalists' release, but added that the authorities should make an official apology to them for their illegal week-long detention. He also called for the immediate release of other ADP activists who are still in detention. ("Democratic Congress Bulletin," 5 May)
BOSNIAJOURNALISTS TO SPEAK ON MEDIA AND NATIONAL RECONCILIATION. On 15 May, RFE/RL will host a discussion in Washington on the status of the Bosnian press and its role in promoting national reconciliation. Two leading representatives of Bosnia's independent media will take part in the discussion: Senad Pecanin, the founder, publisher, and editor in chief of the Bosnian independent investigative weekly magazine "Dani," and Natasa Tesanovic, director of the leading independent TV station Alternativna Televizija (ATV) in Banja Luka, capital city of Republika Srpska, the Serb portion of Bosnia.
KAZAKHSTANNAZARBYEV'S 'RIGID INFORMATION CONTROL.' An editorial in "The Washington Post", "Kazakhs Need Help," noted that during his decade as president, Nursultan Nazarbayev has grown increasingly intolerant of dissent or pluralism in the face of mounting evidence of massive official corruption, partly fueled by his country's oil wealth. The paper cites the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as saying that his rule is marked by "rigid control of independent expression." CPJ also refers to routine harassment of journalists "guilty" of free-thinking reporting, that "insulting" the president is a punishable offence and that his family in one way or the other controls most broadcasting outlets. An NGO-led campaign to defeat a strict new media law was met by police raids and tax "inspections," the paper notes. ("The Washington Post," 4 May)
LEADING JOURNALIST DEAD AT 72. Kazakhstan's "Zhas Alash" paper announced that Qaltay Mukhamedzhan, prominent Kazakh writer and chief editor of the "Turkistan" weekly, died this week. He was one of the first post-1991 contributors to RFE/RL's Kazakh Broadcasting Service. The journalist died in a Moscow clinic; no details on cause of death were provided. ("RFE/RL Kazakh News," 8 May)
LITHUANIANEW DIRECTOR OF STATE RADIO AND TV ELECTED. The Council of Lithuanian Radio and Television (LRT) on 8 May unanimously elected former Economy Minister Valentinas Milaknis as the new director-general of the state-owned national radio and television, "Kauno diena" reported the next day. Eleven candidates competed for the post, but only two, Milaknis and former Baltic Television Director Gintaras Songaila, passed the first round by getting sufficiently high ratings from the council members. His most important task will be to balance the financial situation and repay the debts of LRT, which now exceed 19 million litas ($4.75 million). He said that the number of LRT personnel must be reduced and other reforms implemented. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May)
MOLDOVAPRESIDENT CALLS ON MEDIA TO PROMOTE NATIONAL INTERESTS. "The right to free expression is not an end in itself, it should serve the good of the country," said President Vladimir Voronin in a message to Moldovan news media made public on the eve of World Press Freedom Day. He also called on Moldovan journalists to promote national interests in their work and that the news media should "give up covering topics that contain too much violence." He called on the journalists to assist the authorities in resolving various problems, including the conflict in the breakaway Transdniester republic. Voronin, leader of the Party of Moldovan Communists (PCRM), was elected president on 4 April after a vote in the Communist-dominated parliament. ("Moldova Media News," 7 May)
JOURNALISM GROUPS DEPLORE STATE OF PRESS FREEDOM. Authorities, political parties, and various economic clans continue their strict control over the country's news media, claims a 3 May declaration signed by the Moldovan Journalists' Union, the Independent Journalism Center, the Committee for Press Freedom, and the associations of Independent Press (API) and Electronic Media (APEL). They noted that overdependence on various "sponsors" creates conditions for self-censorship and deplored lack of state efforts to protect Moldovan media and advertising markets from foreign influence. The signatories also noted that media legislation is constantly amended and serves the interests of the powers-that-be. ("Moldova Media News," 7 May)
PARLIAMENT TO AMEND BROADCAST LAW. An amendment to the broadcast law passed by Moldovan parliament in the first reading on 27 April would allow the state Teleradio Moldova chairman to appoint his deputies. Under present law, parliament appoints the chairman and his deputies. Parliamentary opposition leader Iurie Rosca said that the Communist majority in parliament could then name a Teleradio Moldova chairman who is "loyal to the Communist Party." In related news, parliament dismissed the directors of Moldovan National TV and of the National Radio, who were seen as sympathetic to the Democratic Party (PD). ("Moldova Media News," 7 May)
DRAFT MEDIA LAW THREATENS PRESS FREEDOM IN TRANSDNIESTER? Media outlets in the self-proclaimed Transdniester Republic may feel more pressure from authorities if the local parliament passes a new media law. The draft law requires all publications to register every four years at the registry chamber and the local Information Ministry. Publications not issued within one month after registration will be suspended. Local journalists believe the new law might enable authorities to manipulate the media in election campaigns; presidential elections in Transdniester are scheduled for this fall. ("Moldova Media News," 7 May)
ARTICLE ON REGIONAL MEDIA. An analysis of the current state of Moldova's regional media ran on 4 May in all newspapers which are members of the Association of Independent Press (API). The article focused on legal and financial problems facing print media in Moldovan provinces. Almost a year after the law on access to information was adopted, its implementation remains a problem. The author provides numerous examples of how local authorities turn down journalists' requests for information. The article analyzes various forms of "sponsorship" and state subsidies that are currently used by the regional media, and concludes that government publications fail to meet the demands of news consumers in the regions. ("Moldova Media News," 7 May)
LAWYERS, JUDGES, JOURNALISTS DISCUSS DEFAMATION. Almost 100 journalists, lawyers, and judges met on 4 May in Chisinau to discuss various aspects of defamation and how to improve Moldovan law on that issue in a one-day seminar, organized by the Moldovan office of the American Bar Association/Central and East European Law Initiative (ABA/CEELI), the Independent Journalism Center, the Judicial Training Center, and the Justice Center of Moldovan Lawyers' Union. ("Moldova Media News," 7 May)
MONTENEGROFREEDOM OF THE PRESS CELEBRATED. Montenegro greeted 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, with "an enviable level of freedom of media, expression, and of speech," Montenegrin Information Secretary Bozidar Jaredic told SRNA news agency on 3 May. "It is very important that despite all our difficulties in the previous period, there has been no prosecution or bans on media or on the work of the journalists in Montenegro." The Montenegrin Association of Professional Journalists published a statement which said that its members had supported peace, dialogue, coexistence, and tolerance during the previous decade of the disintegrating communist social system, nationalism, wars, crime, and dictatorship. "It is time to put [journalism] above loyalty to a party," the Association stressed. ("ANEM Update," 28 April-4 May)
RUSSIA'FREE PRESS' CEREMONIALLY BURIED IN ST. PETERSBURG. Some 50 demonstrators gave "the free press" a symbolic burial at a demonstration in St. Petersburg on 6 May, Interfax-Northwest reported. The marchers carried a casket labeled "freedom of speech" to the Taras Shevchenko monument and then to the residence of the presidential envoy to the Northwest federal district. Meanwhile, on 8 May, Media Minister Mikhail Lesin said that the growth of advertising promises to strengthen the "independence" of the mass media in Russia, Interfax reported. He also expressed his view that restrictions on foreign ownership should apply only to nationwide media. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May)
DRAFT MEDIA LAW TO BE CHANGED, TIGHTENED. According to an article in "Vedomosti" on 8 May, the draft law on the media and particularly its sections on foreign ownership will be significantly revised and drastically tightened both by Duma deputies themselves and by Kremlin proposals before it comes up for a vote on second reading. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 10 May)
GUSINSKY SAYS THERE IS NO RESPECT FOR FREE PRESS IN RUSSIA. In a 4 May speech at the National Press Club in Washington, embattled Russian media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky said that "in today's Russia, there is no respect for the independent press, for private property, and for independent judicial action," Russian and Western agencies reported. Gusinsky said that Russia is drifting backward toward authoritarianism. He appealed to the leaders of Western countries to draw "a red line" that Russia's leaders must not be allowed to pass "if they want to live in the civilized world." He said that line would include respect for freedom of speech and the press, human rights, as well as many other things that are necessary for Russia to be called "a civilized country." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 7 May)
U.S. REJECTS RUSSIAN DEMANDS FOR GUSINSKY'S ARREST, EXTRADITION. Russian officials on 4 May demanded that the United States arrest and extradite Gusinsky, who had arrived in the U.S. to speak on the occasion of Free Press Day, Russian and Western agencies reported. A U.S. State Department spokesman said that Washington considers the charges against Gusinsky to be political, the agencies reported. The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted angrily, releasing a statement saying that "despite loud declarations of the importance of jointly fighting financial crimes," Washington has shown in this case that "in considering specific cases, they are first of all motivated by political concerns." An article in "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 4 May suggested that Gusinsky may seek asylum in the United States. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 7 May)
MOSCOW COURT GIVES GAZPROM MAJOR SHARE OF MEDIA-MOST HOLDINGS. A Moscow court on 4 May decided in favor of Gazprom-Media's Leadville Investments and awarded it an additional 19 percent of the shares in NTV now held by Media-MOST and 25 percent plus one of capital in 23 other media companies as part of a settlement of debt that Media-MOST owed Gazprom-Media, Russian and Western agencies reported. Gazprom-Media said that this decision represents the end of the struggle for control of Gusinsky's media empire, but Media-MOST denounced the court finding as yet another episode of "a festival of the defilement of justice," Western agencies reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 7 May)
JORDAN SAYS $750 MILLION MISSING AT NTV. In an article published in the "Financial Times" on 8 May, new NTV General Director Boris Jordan said that his auditors cannot account for some $750 million of the money loaned to Vladimir Gusinsky's operation. Jordan said that up to now, NTV has not been run as a company. Meanwhile, ITAR-TASS reported on 7 May, Russian prosecutors have sent a request to Interpol to detain Gusinsky. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May)
RUSSIAN NATIONALISTS MARCH ON RFE/RL OFFICES IN MOSCOW. Approximately 150 members of extreme Russian nationalist organizations assembled in Moscow's Pushkin Square on 5 May to demand the release of their leader Eduard Limonov, and then most of them marched to the offices of the RFE/RL Russian Service bureau to condemn the information policies of Radio Liberty and NTV, Interfax reported. The meeting broke up without incident, the news service said. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 7 May)
FOREIGN INVOLVEMENT IN RUSSIAN MEDIA STILL VERY SMALL. According to an article in "Finansovaya Rossiya," No. 16, of the 12,000 Russian media outlets, foreign capital is "present only in 66 print and 38 electronic ones." Moreover, any effort to restrict foreign ownership, the article suggests, will simply lead to the rise of dummy corporations behind which foreign owners will be able to continue to operate. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 7 May)
MOSKOVIA MEDIA DISPUTE GROWS. The administration of Moscow Oblast, which owns 44 percent of the shares in the Moskovia teleradio company, has accused the new owner, the Television Technical Center -- which controls 56 percent of the shares -- of violating court orders in its operation of the station, Interfax-Moscow reported on 7 May. The oblast authorities said that they will seek enforcement of the original decision that gives them more control over the station's broadcasts. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 10 May)
LOCALS WANT TO CLEAN UP OMSK AIRWAVES. Local activists in Omsk Oblast are collecting some 10,000 signatures demanding that authorities there provide some kind of "spiritual security" for the television airwaves and encourage television broadcasters to make programs with a more positive approach to life, RFE/RL's Omsk correspondent reported on 28 April. According to the correspondent, local committees led by oblast officials have been reviewing 400 films, televisions series, and broadcasts and have expressed their dissatisfaction with the poor quality of the programming they found. They have complained about the presence of sex and violence in that programming, and most bitterly about the preponderance of foreign cartoons and lack of educational programming. ("RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 9 May)
ROLE OF NON-RUSSIAN LANGUAGES DEBATED IN REGIONS. Karelia Republic head Sergei Katanandov told Interfax-Northwest on 8 May that his government intends to continue its efforts to give the Karelian language the status of the republic's second state language after Russian. Last fall, deputies in the republic's legislative assembly rejected a proposal by the presidential administration to give Karelian official status. According to Katanandov, some 14 percent of the population in the republic is ethnically Karelian and more than two-thirds of those residents use their native tongue. Meanwhile, RFE/RL's Syktyvkar correspondent reported on 28 April that instructors in Komi folklore and Finno-Ugric language and literature at the state university in the Komi Republic will be required to teach their courses in Russian. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May)
SERBIATADIC ANNOUNCES HIS MINISTRY MUST CRACK DOWN. Due to their continued broadcasting without licenses, Indjija broadcasters Radio Mega and Orion and TV Sveti Djordje were closed down by police on 27 April, Federal Telecommunications Minister Boris Tadic said. At a Democratic Party press conference, Tadic said that 92 percent of radio and TV stations in Serbia did not have regular broadcast licenses, including some Radio Television Serbia stations. ("ANEM Update," 28 April-4 May)
KORAC: BASIS FOR INDEPENDENT MEDIA? Serbian Deputy Prime Minister and Social Democratic Union President Zarko Korac said on 2 May that he believed that during this year a good basis for the functioning of independent in Serbia would be made, pointing to the two draft laws on broadcasting and on frequencies. He mentioned that both drafts had been developed along with representatives from the media, NGOs, and international organizations. Korac said that during the past ten years of Slobodan Milosevic's regime, the importance of media in developing a democracy had became evident. ("ANEM Update," 28 April-4 May)
VOJVODINA ASSOCIATION OF ELECTRONIC MEDIA FOUNDED. On 1 May, the first meeting of electronic media representatives in Vojvodina was held to establish the Association of the Electronic Media of Vojvodina, ANEM reported in the Vojvodina daily "Magyar Szo." The main task of the Association would be to represent the electronic media of Vojvodina in the meetings for discussion of the matters of public interest on republic and federal levels. The Association would also fight for the survival of the electronic media, which will practically become impossible if the announced Law on Telecommunications imposes 100,000- to 300,000-dinar fees for broadcast frequencies, "Magyar Szo" argued. Seventy percent of the electronic media in Vojvodina attended the meeting. ("ANEM Update," 28 April-4 May)
DEMAND TO SEPARATE RADIO/TV NOVI SAD FROM RTS. The Vojvodina Executive Council asked the Radio Television Serbia board of directors on 26 April to accept its decision to separate Radio Television Novi Sad from Radio Television Serbia. ("ANEM Update," 28 April-4 May)
PRICE OF SERBIAN DAILIES RAISED. The retail price of daily newspapers in Serbia was increased to 15 dinars per copy on 3 May, according to a joint decision by publishers of the biggest daily papers in Serbia. "The inevitable price increase has been postponed for a long time, since we are aware of the general indigence, but that has driven us to the brink," publishers of "Blic," "Politika," "Vecernje novosti," and "Glas javnosti" said. ("ANEM Update," 28 April-4 May)
UKRAINEU.S. EXPERTS IDENTIFY MISSING JOURNALIST'S BODY... Ukrainian Deputy Prosecutor-General Mykola Harnyk on 8 May announced that a team of U.S. experts concluded that a headless body found near Kyiv last November is that of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, whose disappearance has sparked a political crisis, Interfax reported. Harnyk added that the experts could not determine the cause of Gongadze's death because the head has not been found and because of the time that has elapsed since his death. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May)
...AND WIDOW CALLS FOR 'TRANSPARENT' INVESTIGATION. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on 3 May, Myroslava Gongadze said that she doubts whether "the authorities will ever conclude or reveal who killed her husband because it would implicate Ukraine's top government or business leaders," the "International Herald Tribune" reported. Unlike the Ukrainian political opposition, she did not claim that the tapes made by President Kuchma's former bodyguard ordered her husband's death or that someone acted on what they assumed were his orders. She did say that because Gongadze was the first journalist in Ukraine to make regular reports on corruption, many people were unhappy with his activities. She also said that an "open, transparent investigation" is needed and that the Ukrainian authorities had so far limited their investigation to identification of the corpse and were not "focusing on when, how, or by whom he was killed." ("International Herald Tribune," 5-6 May)
REGIONALCONCERNED ABOUT SOUTHEAST EUROPEAN MEDIA. The South East Europe Media Organization (SEEMO), an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), on 3 May expressed its concern about the status of journalism in Southeast Europe. Many minorities, ethnic and religious groups in this region were still prevented from using media to communicate their views, SEEMO, a network of media professionals from nine countries of Southeast Europe, said in their statement. Investigative reporters in Southeast Europe must contend with organized criminals, officials, and bureaucracy, SEEMO said. Public TV and radio in Southeast Europe are often used as instruments of governments, political parties, and other interest groups, SEEMO added. The organization stressed that the new Yugolsav government had failed to improve working conditions of media outlets and journalists. Despite international protests, the Criminal Defamation Law still represented a threat for journalists in Serbia and in Montenegro; media should not serve as instruments of political parties, SEEMO said. Yugoslav officials still kept tight control and censored publications and confiscated some brought into the country from abroad, SEEMO warned. ("ANEM Update," 28 April-4 May)
WORKSHOP ON GEORGIAN-ABKHAZ RELATIONS. A project on Georgian-Abkhaz Confidence-Building along with the Caucasus NGO Forum, funded by the European Union, announced a competition for young journalists from print media to take part in an all-Caucasian workshop on "Journalistic Ethics in Conflict Situations." The workshop will be held in Armenia in June and will be part of a series. For more, e-mail: email@example.com. ("Yerevan Press Club Newsletter," 28 April-4 May)
NEW PUBLICATIONS, WEBSITESNEW RUSSIAN LITERATURE WEBSITE. In January 2001, Friends and Partners opened a new site devoted to Russian literature, called FPlib. So far the emphasis has been on Russian poetry of the 19th-20th century, and the site features close to 11,000 examples, some in Russian, some in English translation. There is also literature for children, a quotations and proverbs section (about 700 of the latter), and a large amount of biographical data on Russian writers. Additions are to be made every week. See http://april.friends-partners.ru/literature/index.html. (Center for Civil Society International, 9 May)
END NOTEEKHO MOSKVY MAY BE NEXT IN LINE FOR GAZPROM TAKEOVER
By Sophie Lambroschini and Francesca Mereu
Last month, Russia's state-backed Gazprom gas monopoly succeeded in its takeover bid of NTV television, the crown jewel in Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-MOST empire. Since then, the gas giant has chipped away at more of Gusinsky's media businesses, shutting down the opposition "Segodnya" daily and firing the staff of the "Itogi" political weekly.
Of Media-MOST's most prominent news organizations, only one remains untouched -- radio station Ekho Moskvy. But a court decision last week, which handed shares in a number of Media-MOST outlets to Gazprom and granted it majority control of Ekho Moskvy, has put the popular and outspoken station's future in doubt.
The first radio station in Russia to adopt a "talk radio" format, Ekho Moskvy is the country's largest private, information-based station, with its programs rebroadcast throughout the country by over 70 regional stations.
In Moscow, independent monitors rank the station fifth in listenership, after two powerful state-controlled stations and two music-based stations. Eight percent of Muscovites tune in daily to Ekho Moskvy's famous jingles.
Founded more than 10 years ago, the station is older than most of its fellow Media-MOST outlets. Aleksei Venediktov, the station's current editor in chief, remembers how in 1990 a group of young journalists from the state-owned station Golos Rossii, or Voice of Russia, tired of government restrictions and decided to open the country's first private radio service.
"[One of the founders,] Sergei Korsun -- fed up with working for the government radio, with its atmosphere of censorship, propaganda, and lies -- was able to register Ekho Moskvy and then to get [radio] license No. 1 in Moscow. So out came Ekho Moskvy. It first began to broadcast on the 22nd of August, 1990."
On its first day on the air, Ekho Moskvy broadcast news, a conversation with perestroika-era politician Sergei Stankevich, and the Beatles hit "All My Loving." The station soon became an open forum for political debate, airing different points of view and offering an alternative voice in a country where radio broadcasting, to this day, is dominated by state-owned stations.
Venediktov says that from the very beginning, Ekho Moskvy's journalists distinguished themselves by reporting on the top news events as Russia struggled to break with its communist past:
"It was in September 1990 when the military maneuvers first started around Moscow and the army turned against [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev. We were the first -- and only -- ones to report on it. Then, in 1991, we had the Vilnius [independence demonstrations], and we turned into a European and internationally known small radio station."
The station now combines strong news reporting with lighter informational fare. Twice daily -- in the morning and early evening -- Ekho Moskvy broadcasts "information blocks" featuring general news, business and finance updates, and press reviews. The station's commercially sponsored daily programs include everything from gardening tips to Moscow medical care to helping listeners untangle the grammatical complexities of the Russian language.
For several years, one of Ekho Moskvy's trademark shows -- sponsored by the Council of Europe -- aired news on European affairs and held a daily call-in game show on Europe. A separate program invited listeners to call in and voice their opinion on daily news issues ranging from the economy to Chechnya.
But perhaps the station's greatest claim to fame -- and what has made it an indispensable source for Russia-watchers -- are its live interviews with prominent Russians and foreigners.
Ekho Moskvy is the only private radio station in Russia to have hosted heads of state. Its guests have included U.S. President Bill Clinton, who visited the station during his visit to Moscow last year, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who answered radio listeners' questions live during his two-day summit last month with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian on-air guests have included former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, pop superstar Alla Pugacheva, and Media Minister Mikhail Lesin.
Unlike most other Media-MOST outlets, Ekho Moskvy was not the brainchild of magnate Vladimir Gusinsky. Ekho Moskvy had spent four years building its reputation as a reliable source of news and information before joining Media-MOST in 1994, when a ruble depreciation forced the advertising-dependent station to sell some of its stakes to Gusinsky.
Gusinsky currently holds a 38 percent stake in the station, with station journalists holding 33 percent and Gazprom holding 25. But on 4 May, in the latest round of ongoing litigation over Gusinsky's outstanding debt to the gas giant, a Moscow court ruled that an additional 25 percent of many Media-MOST outlets, including Ekho Moskvy, be handed to Gazprom. If the court decision holds, Gazprom will hold a controlling stake -- 50 percent, plus one share -- in the radio station.
While Media-MOST considers an appeal, journalists at Ekho Moskvy are fighting to keep the station under their own control, saying they are negotiating with Gazprom to buy back the 25 percent stake -- something that Venediktov doubts they can persuade the gas giant to allow.
While Gazprom-Media head Alfred Kokh has repeatedly said that the company is acting out of purely financial concerns as a creditor, Venediktov argues that Ekho Moskvy's news format means high costs and low revenues -- "not exactly what a businessman would be looking for." According to Venediktov, the station's real worth can be found in its political value, and he fears that if Gazprom does gain majority control of Ekho Moskvy, it will mark the end of the station's independence.
"If Gazprom succeeds in taking the majority of the shares, we will soon be a government station, even if not from a formal [point of view]," Venediktov said. "Then I think that I, as the editor in chief, and most journalists who came here after they left state radio, will have to leave this radio station. There will be only an 'echo' left of Ekho."