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Ten years on from the 'storming' of Russia's NTV

Stephen Ennis

is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring.

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Russian media watchers marked a grim anniversary last week. Ten years ago, on 14 April 2001, security guards and police acting on behalf of the state-owned Gazprom-Media took control of the premises of the independent broadcaster NTV.

The takeover is seen as a turning point in the recent history of media freedom in Russia, presaging other events that led to the entrenchment of Vladimir Putin's "vertical of power".

Predictably, the anniversary went almost completely unnoticed by the main TV channels.

Founded in 1993 by oligarch Vladimir Gusinskiy, NTV had embodied the spirit of Russia's 'wild' 1990s. Its team of talented writers and journalists, including Yevgeniy Kiselev, Leonid Parfenov and Viktor Shenderovich, produced news and current affairs programmes that set new standards for independent reporting in Russia, especially in their coverage of the war in Chechnya.

In the words of newspaper editor Pavel Gusev, NTV was a "school both for free journalism and for free TV journalism".

The channel also produced the controversial puppet show Kukly - the Russian version of Spitting Image - which mercilessly lampooned public figures, including presidents Yeltsin and Putin. Yeltsin generally put up with being the butt of jokes, but Putin was more sensitive. According to scriptwriter Viktor Shenderovich, Putin's aides tried to have the show censored.

NTV certainly had ill-wishers among Yeltsin's people, but its problems really started when Putin entered the Kremlin. A few days after the new president's inauguration in May 2000, tax police raided the channel's Moscow headquarters and the offices of Gusinskiy's company, Media-Most. A month later, Gusinskiy was arrested as part of a fraud investigation. The charges against him were dropped after he agreed to sell his media empire to Gazprom-Media, one of NTV's shareholders and creditors.

Over the next few months, Gazprom-Media mounted a concerted campaign to secure control of NTV in the face of opposition from many of its journalists, led by Kiselev, and from Gusinskiy who, from the relative safety of exile in Spain, said that the agreement to sell Media-Most had been extracted from him under duress.

Members of the public also joined in the struggle. On 7 April 2001, up to 30,000 people attended a rally in Moscow in support of NTV's independence, but to no avail. A week later, Gazprom-Media gained control of the channel, and Kiselev and his supporters were ousted.

With the benefit of ten years of hindsight, it is apparent that the events of April 2001 had important consequences for Russia.

First, they initiated what Shenderovich has called the prolonged "strangulation" of the Russian media.

Kiselev and his team attempted to revive the spirit of NTV at TV-6, a channel whci hwas majority-owned by exiled oligarch Boris Berezovskiy, and then at TVS, which was backed by a consortium including metals magnate Oleg Deripaska and national grid chief and liberal politician Anatoliy Chubays. In each case, though, a reason was found to pull the plug on the venture. Kiselev, like his former NTV colleague Savik Shuster, ended up pursuing his TV career in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the journalists who stayed on at NTV, including Parfenov, faced pressure and harassment from the authorities. US citizen Boris Jordan, who took over as director-general in 2001, was forced out in 2003 after being carpeted by Putin for the channel's coverage of the 2002 Moscow theatre siege which claimed the lives of more than 120 hostages. Putin accused the channel of trying to boost its ratings and profits at the price of "our citizens' blood".

A year later, Parfenov left after criticising the channel's decision not to broadcast his interview with the widow of Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who had been assassinated by Russian special forces in Qatar.

Parfenov's departure was in "complete accordance with the logic" of the new rules introduced in April 2001, Shenderovich wrote in a recent blog post. It also removed the last vestige of independence from NTV. When Russia was rocked by the Beslan school siege in September 2004, Putin had no reason to criticise the channel's coverage of the ordeal.

Journalists had to adapt to the new conditions. For Ekho Moskvy commentator Sergey Parkhomenko, one of the most damaging results of the "trauma" of April 2001 was the emergence of the practice of self-censorship, which, he said, has become widespread and is "the most effective tool for controlling from within the activities of the Russian media".

A recent example was the decision by the owner of the niche TV channel Dozhd, Natalya Sindeyeva, to block the scheduled screening of a poetry recital poking fun at President Medvedev. But, if Ekho Moskvy editor-in-chief Aleksey Venediktov is to be believed, Sindeyeva's fears appear to have been misplaced. Venediktov said he had it on good authority that when Medvedev saw the poem on the internet he "had a good laugh".

The decline in journalistic standards has also affected audiences, thinks Yevgeniy Kiselev. Ten years of Putin's "information regime" have created a new generation of viewers who are "more than satisfied with the chewing-gum news that is served up by the bulletins on state TV and which forms public opinion", he told Ekho on 14 April.

Changes in the media are seen as examples of wider political trends. "After the TV space and the media space, they purged the legal space, the electoral space and the right to protest. They purged everything," said Viktor Shenderovich, once a regular of NTV.

Like Shenderovich, opposition commentator Liliya Shevtsova traces the process of change back to April 2001. In a blog post entitled "When did Putin become Putin?", she said that this was the "date of birth of the current authorities and the date of the funeral of the hopes for a new Russia".

If Medvedev wants to show he is serious about change, says Shevtsova, he should "return to the starting point and begin with freedom of speech and liberate TV from the humiliating obligation to serve power".

Over the past several months, some current affairs shows on NTV have challenged or broken a few of the TV taboos of the Putin era. Vadim Takmenev's satirical current affairs show Tsentralnoye Televideniye (Central Television) has even taken a few backhanded swipes at Prime Minister Putin.

In general, however, NTV, like state channels Rossiya 1 and Channel One, continues to submit to the interests of the authorities - whether that means running hatchet jobs on out-of-favour officials, such as former Moscow mayor Yuriy Luzhkov, or glossing over the recent Putin-Medvedev split on the military intervention in Libya.

Stephen Ennis is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring. 

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