Gazprom, the energy monopoly that is partially owned by the state, on Tuesday moved to take control of NTV, a step the Russian government insists it has nothing to do with. But journalists at the network and other media organizations say it is clearly intended to rein in the most independent and critical television network in Russia today.
The dispute between Gazprom and embattled media magnate and former NTV owner Vladimir Gusinsky has now led to Gazprom taking control of the NTV board.
Kremlin officials continue to insist that it is a private financial dispute about the debt that Gusinsky, now facing extradition from Spain, owes Gazprom.
But many Russians, journalist and non-journalist alike, view Gazprom's assumption of ownership as yet another effort by the Kremlin to silence public criticism of its actions.
When the transfer of ownership was announced, NTV journalists dropped normal programming and featured the following message on an otherwise blank screen: "In protest of the illegal attempt to change the board of NTV, only news programs will be broadcast."
And the NTV journalists spent the night at the station's headquarters out of a concern that Gazprom's media group would seek to forcibly impose a new management.
Even as that confrontation was taking place, journalists and others in Russia and around the world spoke out against this action.
NTV general manager Yevgeny Kiselyov directly blamed President Vladimir Putin for Gazprom's action. "Putin unleashed this war against NTV and now makes out as if he has nothing to do with it," Kiselyov said.
Another Russian journalist, Kseniy Ponomareva, said, "Putin is not an opponent of free speech; it just strikes him as absurd that someone should have the right to publicly judge his actions."
Oleg Panfilov, the director of Moscow's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, raised the specter of a return to a Soviet-style past.
"It is difficult to say what could happen if there is no NTV," he said. "In Russia, you will have a return to Central Television of the Soviet Union, which will show only propaganda and which will only talk about the president and say that everything is fine."
Even former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev announced that he would try to intervene with Putin on this issue. Gorbachev noted that when he called on Wednesday, Putin's aides said that the president was occupied.
All of these statements came on the heels of a protest last weekend organized by Yabloko and other democratic parties and groups last weekend in defense of NTV and against government attempts to gain editorial control of that independent network. And they reflected the conjunction of two developments.
On the one hand, ever more Russians depend on the electronic media and especially on television as their primary or even only source for news.
Except for NTV, the other channels have kept to the government line on critical issues such as the war in Chechnya and human rights. In the absence of alternative sources of information, ordinary Russians are less likely to adopt positions critical of the government, and consequently the population is less likely to have an impact on the actions of the government itself.
And on the other hand, this Gazprom move to take over NTV appears to be part of an effort by the Russian government to use nominally private enterprises such as Gazprom to do its bidding. Such an arrangement inevitably tends to deflect outside criticism because it gives those in the government the ability to plausibly deny that they are in fact behind such moves.
The fight over NTV is certainly far from over, but the battle that the Kremlin and its allies appear to have won this week means that the backers of a free media in Russia face an uphill struggle in the future.
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