Eyewitness: Kremlin moves on media magnate's empire

April 27, 2001

The armed takeover of Russia's last independent national television channel, following a boardroom coup, has provoked a storm of criticism the world over.

The forced imposition of new management at Moscow-based Nezavisimoi Televize (NTV), Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-Most television, radio and press empire, over Easter raised questions about the future for democratic reforms in Russia.

President Vladimir Putin claims the issue at NTV is a business dispute over unpaid multimillion-pound loans. But the extensive use of state security, abuse of court and judicial procedures and aggressive deployment of official prosecutors to attack NTV and other parts of its mother company over the past year, begs the question: what is Mr Putin more committed to? Principles of free speech or creating the "dictatorship of the law" he announced on being elected?

Martin Nicholson, associate fellow of the Royal Institute for International Affairs and a former Cabinet adviser on Soviet and Russian affairs, said:

"Although the whole NTV story is bad for the freedom of the press, it is not about press freedom. It is the last act in the battle against the oligarchs that began under Yeltsin."

Media-Most had been deeply politically involved, Mr Nicholson said. Despite the station's reputation for critical coverage of the Russian campaigns in Chechnya, the channel swore fealty to Yeltsin during his 1996 re-election campaign in return for broadcasting licences that allowed it to become a national station.

"NTV under Yeltsin was very thick with the authorities - sometimes on the right and sometimes on the wrong side. Things went wrong when Gusinsky failed to win a stake in Syvazinvest, the state telecom company, and then later NTV's coverage of the Kursk submarine disaster angered Putin," Mr Nicholson said.

Press freedom in Russia in the short term may be damaged, he said, but in the longer term, there were signs - especially among the uncensored Russian internet news websites - that a new generation of press barons would come up from a background of ordinary media work.

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