Soviet-style terror has the media at bay

President Putin’s tightening grip looks likely to crush his country’s last privately owned TV station.
By any standards NTV, the only remaining privately owned television station in Russia, is in a peculiar position. Its chief shareholder, Vladimir Gusinsky, has fled the country, having been arrested once already. Its ownership is in dispute. Its bank accounts have been inexplicably frozen. The offices of its parent company Media-Most have been raided by armed tax officers.
Indeed, many of Media-Most’s journalists – the group owns newspapers, magazines and Ekho Moskvy, the only independent news radio station in Moscow – have experienced various degrees of harassment. Sometimes, they are refused entry to government press conferences; at other times, they receive unsolicited assignments from state-owned media groups with mysterious access to their home telephone numbers. It is now considered a matter of time before the company is taken over by the state.
Alexei Venediktov, the chief editor of Ekho Moskvy, says that President Vladimir Putin told a recent meeting of Media-Most’s journalists: “Your job is to support the state.” Mr Venediktov is stunned by the Russian leader’s profoundly Soviet world view. “I told him, ‘We are not an instrument of the state’,” says the radio chief. “He didn’t know what I was talking about. He thinks that there is state press and anti-state press. He actually doesn’t understand that the press might play an independent role in a civil society.”
Nor, it seems, is he the only one. Of late, the saga of NTV, with a clutch of flamboyant personalities at its centre – the American tycoon Ted Turner has been rumoured to be negotiating to buy the disputed Media-Most shares – has attracted a great deal of attention.
On the one hand, the general director of NTV, Evgeny Kisilyov, has launched a very public crusade to “save” its independence. When he appears on his own weekly programme, he often delivers extensive monologues about the free press.
On the other hand, dark rumours circulate about the behaviour of Mr Gusinsky, who took large loans from Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas giant. Gazprom, whose interests are inextricably linked to those of Mr Putin, is suing for its money, which it would like in the form of a controlling package of Media-Most shares – thereby formally ending NTV’s independence.
What remains of an independent press elsewhere in Russia is dead or dying, while there is a simultaneous growth in fear of speaking out against the powers-that-be. The Glasnost Defence Foundation, which monitors press and broadcasting, reckons that only about a quarter of the country’s media are now nominally in private hands and, even then, many owners are businessmen who front for the state authorities.
By the end of this year, the figure looks likely to fall to five per cent. Across Russia, powerful regional governors, appointed by Mr Putin, are already creating media-holding groups which will, among other things, control all access to advertising, effectively eliminating even the semi-independent regional media that currently exist.
Without NTV, the country may soon resemble a “Russia of the 1970s”, according to a colleague of Alexei Simonov, the Glasnost Defence Foundation’s president. There would be a vast state propaganda machine, and a tiny group of barely tolerated “dissidents” opposing it. Perhaps not coincidentally, that is also the Russia – not Stalin’s nightmarish Russia, but Brezhnev’s stultifying Russia – in which Vladimir Putin came of age, and to which he often nostalgically looks back.
Those not destroyed financially may be eliminated by other means. At Novaya Gazeta, a feisty Moscow bi-weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 100,000, one journalist has been murdered. Another was unexpectedly arrested last week in Chechnya. (Novaya Gazeta is one of the few papers in Russia to oppose the Chechen war.) Yet another journalist, Oleg Lurye, was recently beaten unconscious by thugs, who then carved deep scars in his face with a knife. Mr Lurye had published a series of articles about corruption in high places, and says he will continue to do so.
Nevertheless, the paper’s editor-in-chief concedes that even he has a “feeling of threat” which he never had before. Advertisers have begun to drift away. Last year, the journal was subjected to almost 30 “tax inspections”, which have now become the established form of state harassment in a country where the tax laws are so complex and so contradictory that it is all but impossible for any company to comply with them.
Outside Moscow, methods have been more direct. Last summer, the Bashkir authorities laid siege to the region’s only independent radio station for nine days, then stormed the offices and led the station’s employees away in handcuffs.
In Moscow, the authorities are more careful, says the radio chief Alexei Venediktov. “Putin wants to stay in the club of world leaders,” he points out. “He wants to keep up a civilised facade.” Instead of handcuffing journalists, the harassment will probably continue at a low level, causing only minimal public reaction, either in Russia or abroad.
That, perhaps, is the oddest thing about the slow attempt to eliminate the opposition media – and, ultimately, opposition thinking – in Russia: the stunning silence that surrounds the whole process. A small group of intellectuals and journalists lobby for the right to oppose the official line. Many others, including most journalists, appear to share their president’s Soviet world view.
“Society supports the destruction of NTV,” says Mr Simonov, of the Glasnost Defence Foundation. In their current “national patriotic mood”, he adds, many Russians assume, like their president, that “opposition” journalists – especially those with super-wealthy proprietors – are by definition working against the interests of the nation.