Television journalists at the formerly independent NTV network are losing steam in their week-long protest of the company’s takeover by state-controlled energy monopoly Gazprom.
Led by ousted general director Yevgeny Kiselev, most of the network’s professional staff have joined a sit-in in their offices at Moscow’s Ostankino television tower, declaring the takeover “illegal” and refusing to accept direction from the new management. Their protests drew significant but not overwhelming public support. On April 7, 10,000-15,000 Muscovites rallied to their cause at Ostankino. Demonstrators numbered 5,000-6,000 in St. Petersburg, and sizable crowds turned out in Murmansk, Novgorod, Chelyabinsk and Ulyanovsk. But a public opinion poll showed that more Russians are “not at all” disturbed by the “state takeover” than are “very” or “somewhat” disturbed (44, 11 and 24 percent respectively).
So Kiselev and the NTV staff showed some public muscle. Beyond that accomplishment, they face political checkmate. A supporter laid it out: “Even if the formal demands of the ‘journalistic collective’ were met and their case were transferred to the Supreme Court, everyone understands what the court’s finding would be–a victory for Gazprom on all counts.”
The prospect of that outcome, and perhaps Kiselev’s strong personality, have led some big names and small ones to walk away from the protest. Two journalists who resigned from NTV last week accused Kiselev of using them as “cannon fodder” in his war with Gazprom. Earlier this week, a news reporter, a political reporter, and the host and staff of the popular documentary “Kriminal” resigned as well.
Gazprom’s legal claim to control of the network derives from its defaulted loans to Media Most, Vladimir Gusinsky’s shrinking conglomerate, but few doubt its motives are political. NTV’s independence, its criticism of the war in Chechnya and its exposés of official corruption, proved intolerable to the Kremlin, which brought criminal charges against network founder Gusinsky and harassed the company financially, calling in loans and sending the tax police on repeated raids of company offices. Gusinsky, who has not set foot in Russia in almost a year and is fighting extradition from Spain, has apparently lost control not just of NTV but of Seven Days, the publisher of Segodnya daily and (with Newsweek) of Itogi weekly. Those publications are likely to shut down.
The efforts of CNN founder Ted Turner to buy into Media Most have been a sideshow to this affair. Turner, who discussed NTV with President Vladimir Putin in January, claimed last week to have reached agreement in principle with Gusinsky on acquisition of his shares. But Turner can be no white knight. Gazprom, with the support of a California investment house with a 4.5 percent holding, has well over 50 percent of the voting stock and will retain control of NTV regardless of what Turner does.