• Email
  • Print

A Free Press in Russia?

To the Editors:

Masha Lipman’s lament on the demise of freedom of the press in Russia [NYR, May 31] is fortunately premature. Unfortunately, her analysis of the recent history of NTV and Media MOST omits crucial details and thus fails to recognize that the real threat to freedom of the press in Russia comes from financial mismanagement and irresponsible business decisions—the practices of the Gusinsky regime, which brought NTV and Media MOST to the brink of collapse.

On the question of freedom of the press, while I can only speak to the future of NTV, I have made it perfectly clear that editorial independence is guaranteed as long as I have anything to do with this network. Any objective review of the news and commentary on the station in the period since the management change on April 3 will show that there has been no lack of hard-hitting journalism. Not a single journalist has been fired. While some choose to leave, the majority of key reporters and staff members have chosen to remain or have returned.

Our new chief editor is Tatiana Mitkova, a journalist of utmost integrity. She is renowned for her defense of press freedom in 1991, when she refused to read a script prepared by Mr. Gorbachev’s writers sanitizing a Russian military intervention in Lithuania and was promptly fired. Her courageous stand was recognized that year by the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Further demonstrating our commitment to quality content and programming, the entire team of reporters who defied government pressure to report ugly truths from Chechnya remains with NTV, as do the reporters who covered the Kursk disaster. The popular political satire program Kukly has lost none of its sting. I have stated, categorically, that I will resign as general director of NTV if there is any interference from the Kremlin in the editorial independence of our news broadcasts.

But the real concern for the future of free press in Russia is whether an autonomous television network can be built and operated on a sound financial footing. A free press cannot exist on good intentions. Unless it is to be dependent on government largess and good will, it must generate revenues and profits and be run in a businesslike way. NTV under Media MOST never was.

Ms. Lipman acknowledges that Mr. Gu-sinsky fell deeply into debt. The magnitude of that debt is staggering: in the past five years, Media MOST accumulated $1.6 billion in debt, all from entities with a connection to the state. This is equal to the total value of the entire Russian television industry, about $450 million, and more than three times the industry’s annual advertising revenue. Media MOST had cumulative losses in the period of $262 million. NTV itself ran up debt of $100 million, and had cumulative losses of $62 million in the same period.

Under Mr. Gusinksy’s management, NTV did not produce a signed audit statement in 1999, and the statement for 2000 is not yet complete. It also did not produce a budget that showed a balance sheet and cash flow statement for 2000. Thus, NTV showed no evidence that it could cover its financial loss of $9.2 million for the year 2000.

Indeed, at the time of the management change, NTV had incurred overdue operating indebtedness of $14.6 million, including over $1 million in unpaid salaries and over $6 million in unpaid production expenses. The financial disaster was mirrored in the station’s declining audience. According to the Gallup Media organization, the only internationally recognized monitoring service in Russia, NTV ratings in Russia declined 24 percent from May 2000 to March 2001. In Moscow, they declined 21 percent in the same period, costing NTV its top position for the first time in eighteen months.

Given its precarious financial situation, it is a considerable stretch to argue that Media MOST/NTV was ever an autonomous enterprise: it was so beholden to the state that its signal could have been shut down at any time. Nor is it reasonable to argue that NTV journalists were ever truly independent. With Mr. Gusinsky as the dominant shareholder, its news reporting and editorial positions were subject to his shifting views and interest. Mr. Gusinsky himself made this clear when he acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times (February 10, 2001) that he used his media organizations to support then President Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 elections and then in 1997 to attack government ministers after he lost out for a bid for a stake in the state telecommunications company.

Only a network that is both free from dependency on the state and free from the domination of a single shareholder can offer a platform for journalists to report objectively. This is what I am committed to building at NTV—a commitment that is supported by Gazprom, the largest share-holder. Our management team is working with PricewaterhouseCoopers to complete the audits for 1999 and 2000; we are developing business plans and a budget that enable NTV to generate a profit within one year; and we will work to bring in new investors, both to broaden the shareholder base and to inject new capital into the station.

I welcome the international attention focused on NTV and press freedom in Russia. I ask only that we be judged on performance, not speculation; on facts, not rumors.

Boris Jordan

General Director, NTV

Moscow

Masha Lipman replies:

Boris Jordan believes that I lament the freedom of the press prematurely. I don’t think my concerns are premature since seventy staff members of my magazine, Itogi, are without jobs after we were all fired by our publisher. The firing had nothing to do with financial mismanagement. The magazine was making money.

Itogi, which we created five years ago, continues to be published using our design, our format, our arrangement of sections and subjects. It is produced by a wholly new team that the publisher has hired. The content, however, differs from ours: the new Itogi is clearly drifting toward becoming a less political magazine.

The Itogi that we produced was respected for its high editorial standards. It promoted liberal values and took a critical view of Kremlin politics and of the Chechen war in particular. The publisher was anxious to get rid of us because he did not want to antagonize the Kremlin. He knew the Kremlin would be pleased if he got rid of the people who produced a magazine which had been started by Vladimir Gusinsky, the media tycoon whom the Kremlin regarded as its enemy.

If the entire staff of a news organization can be replaced because its publisher feels the need to show his loyalty to the government, it is, I would say, probably time to be worried about freedom of the press in Russia. As the newly appointed top manager of a Russian news organization, Boris Jordan should, I suggest, be more alert to such signals.

Mr. Jordan pledges that he will resign as general director of NTV if there is any interference from the Kremlin in the editorial independence of NTV broadcasts. He appears to underestimate the sophistication of today’s Russian rulers. He should not expect menacing censors to appear in his TV offices and demand that he present videotapes and other materials for inspection. Nobody in the Kremlin wants to take Russia back to Soviet times when all media spoke in one voice, whether the subject was Communist policy, the arts, or natural disasters.

Today’s government is not involved in petty surveillance; but it wants to make sure that when it comes to sensitive policy or personal matters, the public should be sent a “correct” message. In today’s Russia the press and television enjoy the freedom that is granted to them; but with very few exceptions, they tend to be cautious and cooperative when it comes to sensitive matters.

One such matter is President Putin’s sensitivity to personal criticism. Now that NTV is no longer part of Gusinsky’s media assets, it seems to take this into account. While Mr. Jordan writes that the popular political satire puppet show Kukly has lost none of its sting, a recent program suggests the opposite. The show was about a mysterious evil monster running around town and threatening the freedom of the press. Some begin to suspect that the monster is, in fact, President Putin in disguise. In the end, however, the puppet of Putin appears in person and calms all fears. The puppet of Yevgeny Kiselev, a popular NTV anchor and the leader of the “insurgent” team which left NTV after it had been taken over by Gazprom, admits that there was never any monster; he had invented it. The Putin puppet tells everyone not to worry, but to go ahead and get on with their jobs. This looked more like soft political propaganda than the piercing satire the program used to present. A show like this would have been inconceivable on the old NTV. Yet, I believe Mr. Jordan when he says nobody interferes with NTV performance. The Kukly producers were simply being cautious and cooperative.

Mr. Jordan writes that “only a network that is both free from dependency on the state and free from the domination of a single shareholder can offer a platform for journalists to report objectively.” I cannot agree more. However, what we had before Gazprom took over NTV was two national TV channels controlled by the Kremlin and one, NTV, that was privately owned. NTV may not have been “truly independent”—I wonder whether true independence can in any case be achieved—but this is not the point. It offered an alternative voice. It may at times have reflected some of Mr. Gusinsky’s interests, especially during the past year when Mr.Gusinsky and his channel were being persistently harassed by government agencies. But this was not all NTV was about. Dozens of millions of viewers would not have watched it if it had been merely a mouthpiece for Gusinsky.

What we have today is two channels controlled by the state and one whose main shareholder is the natural gas monopoly Gazprom, which, in turn, is controlled by the state. The state is its biggest shareholder (owning some 38 percent), and the chairman of the board of directors of Gazprom is the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff. In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Kremlin insider—Gleb Pavlovsky—proudly listed the “capture” of MOST among other achievements of President Putin.

The Kremlin, including the President himself, made it clear on many occasions that it had an interest in getting rid of Gusinsky, who was, and still is, regarded by the government as an evil force. It is also a fact that the debt litigation, which lasted for over a year, was accompanied by a campaign of harassment conducted by government law-enforcement agencies. The campaign included, among other things, searches, interrogations, and fabricated legal cases that later fell apart, all of which seriously affected the performance of the media.

Mr. Jordan became the top manager of NTV as a result of Gazprom’s victory in a struggle with Media MOST that was initiated, encouraged, and abetted by the Kremlin. Now he vows that he will turn NTV into a journalistic paradise: high quality, profitable, and owned by a broader number of shareholders, so that none of them will dominate, and objective reporting will be ensured. Mr. Jordan wants to be judged by facts, not rumors. What he has offered so far is not facts but intentions. They sound like very good intentions; however, the bad instincts of the Russian rulers and the general loyalty to those rulers of the political elite and the media give strong reasons for skepticism whether those intentions will be carried out.

  • Email
  • Print