From firstname.lastname@example.org Wed Jul 19 13:50:56 2000
Date: Sat, 15 Jul 2000 22:48:59 -0500 (CDT)
From: IGC News Desk <email@example.com>
Subject: RUSSIA: Media Under Pressure
MOSCOW, Jul 13 (IPS)—The Kremlin has vowed to support Russian democracy, but the troubles of the independent media—accepted worldwide as an important component of democracy—suggest that the days of government tolerance of dissident voices may soon be over.
The Russian authorities' crusade against independent NTV television in particular is worrying western governments and media, but President Vladimir Putin believes there is no cause for concern.
In an interview broadcast on Wednesday Putin told foreign and local reporters that democracy should not be confused with anarchy and he promised to help develop a civil society including the key mass media element.
Earlier this month Putin called for a levelling of the playing field for Russian businesses, urging the country's tycoons not to use the media outlets they own for personal political agendas as against the state's interests.
The Russian leader also argued that the country's media should not be controlled by influential tycoons, but it remains a matter of debate whether police raids are the remedy for the problem.
There is little doubt that many Russian journalists increasingly find themselves little more than pawns in proxy wars between political factions and business moguls. During the election campaigns last fall and earlier this year, politically connected tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky launched a propaganda war against each other using the television stations they control.
Berezovsky is part owner of ORT while Gusinsky owns NTV.
Putin's victory was attributed in some measure to glowing coverage by ORT—the only television station that broadcasts across the nation.
In the aftermath of the election, NTV's parent company, Media- MOST, was subject to repeated police raids on its offices, a move widely seen as a part of a campaign to punish the company for its criticism of the war in Chechnya and its push to expose alleged corruption in the Kremlin.
On Jul. 11 law enforcement officers targeted NTV television's offices for the first time and demanded documents spelling out the station's ownership. NTV is part of Gusinsky's media empire, but it is not clear how exactly it is controlled by Media-MOST. Unlike a previous raid on May 11, the officers engaged in this week's convergence on Media-MOST's headquarters in central Moscow, did not sport ski masks or carry automatic weapons.
Media-MOST said it fully co-operated with the investigators, but accused the Kremlin of targeting Gusinsky in an attempt to silence his news organisations, NTV in particular, which have been critical of Putin.
Gusinsky, who was jailed for three days in June, has been charged with embezzlement of some 10 million dollars. He was accused in what prosecutors say was the illegal privatisation of the television company in Russia's second largest city St. Petersburg, back in 1997.
But now prosecutors are going at the heart of Gusinsky's media operations and trying to determine exactly who owns the companies under his control. Prosecutors say they also were looking at Media- MOST's relationship with Russia's natural gas monopoly Gazprom.
But Media-MOST claims the new probe was linked to President Putin's public statement during his European tour last month that Media-Most's ties with Gazprom should be investigated. Putin accused Gusinsky of creating an unsound system of debt guarantees.
Earlier this year Gazprom repaid a 211 million dollar loan CS First Boston made to Media-MOST. Gazprom had guaranteed this loan and another, for 170 million dollars, which matures next year.
Media-MOST's counsellor Andrei Loschilin told IPS that the prosecutors interfered in the relationship between two companies, a situation that did not violate Russian laws.
But government officials argue the state's interests were probably adversely affected by Gazprom's debt obligations and repayment, because the government owns a 38 percent stake in the natural gas giant.
Vasily Pimenov, deputy head of the special cases investigation department of the Prosecutor General's Office, told Interfax news agency that Gusinsky could be re-arrested if the documents seized Jul. 11 provided grounds to charge him with wrongdoing with regard to the debt deal with Gazprom.
Gusinsky told his NTV channel that he linked the new development in the criminal case to station's show on Jul. 9, in which anchor Yevgeny Kiselyov criticised comments Putin made about the media in his Jul. 8 state of the nation address. Putin had said that some media outlets are used by their owners as weapons in political battles.
The Prosecutor General's Office also sent a letter to Gazprom demanding a list of documents covering its relationship with Media- MOST. Gazprom said in a statement that it would comply with the request. Gazprom spokesman Igor Ivantsov has told IPS that the company is keen to settle its accounts with Media-MOST.
According to Media-MOST, Gazprom now holds a 48 percent stake in the media holding company, part of it collateral for the loans. Gazprom officials have said the gas giant owns about 30 percent of NTV, as well as 14 percent in Media-MOST as a whole and two 20 percent packages in Media-MOST as collateral against bank loans.
The Gusinsky case has become high-profile internationally, as it is viewed as a Kremlin-ordered attempt to stifle media freedom in Russia. US officials have already voiced their concern over the future of press freedom in Russia.
German Chancellor Gerhart Schroeder said he had personally asked Putin to arrange for Gusinsky's release when the two men met in Berlin last month at the time of the media tycoon's arrest. Members of international lobbying groups, such as International Press Institute and other, have come to Moscow to express their concern. In response, the Kremlin has repeatedly denied that the investigation is directed at changing Media-Most's editorial line.
Media-Most's case is just the most obvious sign of problems in the relationship between the Russian government and the media. Last month Press Minister Mikhail Lesin bluntly warned the community that “if one strictly follows the letter of the law, we could have shut down all media outlets a long time ago”.
Not surprisingly, a recent poll among Russian journalists named Lesin as a top foe of the country's press freedom.
Current pressure on Russia's private media is shifting the balance between privately-owned and state-owned media in the direction of the latter. And, as has been repeatedly demonstrated over the last decade, the state-controlled media have been significantly less free and critical of government actions than have the privately owned outlets.