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2 Vocal Russian Publications Are Silenced

April 18, 2001|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — After seizing Russia's only independent national television network, energy giant Gazprom has moved swiftly to dismantle two related publications that were critical of the Kremlin.

Amid grim days for media freedom in Russia, journalists from the liberal Itogi weekly newsmagazine were locked out and fired Tuesday, a day after the partially state-owned Gazprom joined forces with the head of the Sem Dney publishing house to shut down a leading newspaper, Sevodnya.

Like NTV, the two publications were associated with Media-Most and its owner, Vladimir A. Gusinsky, whose networks and publications have taken on the Russian government.

Sergei Parkhomenko, Itogi's editor, said the closures mean that there is no place for independent, quality journalism in Russia.

Following Gazprom's takeover of NTV last week, the creator of the network's best-known program--"Kukly," a biting, satirical puppet show that mercilessly lampooned President Vladimir V. Putin and his advisors--declared Tuesday that he will not write the show for the network.

"The message that the Kremlin is sending to society is simple and clear: Line up at attention and listen to orders," said creator Viktor Shenderovich. "Most of the society is already lined up and all ears."

Many of the three outlets' staff members who remain loyal to Gusinsky have been struggling on. Former NTV journalists put out news bulletins Tuesday on Gusinsky's regional television network, TNT, which reaches about 75 million of Russia's 145 million people, mainly in cities outside Moscow.

But in what appeared part of a concerted campaign by Putin's government to silence Gusinsky's media outlets, police on Monday brought tax evasion charges against senior TNT personnel.

Putin has taken pains to distance himself from the NTV takeover, saying it is merely a commercial quarrel between Gazprom and Media-Most, which is more than $400 million in debt to the gas company.

However, many journalists and liberal analysts are convinced that the Kremlin is behind the moves against Gusinsky's empire that were launched by Gazprom, the tax police and the nation's general prosecutor.

Critics point out that while the authorities moved against Gusinsky's companies, they have shown no interest in taking on oligarchs close to the Kremlin.

"Only the blind could not see the whole remarkable chain of coincidences involving the business problems of Media-Most and the political interests of the Kremlin," Shenderovich said. "It was clear to us from the very beginning that there was no coincidence. I hope now it is clear to the rest of the country."

Oleg Panfilov, an analyst for the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Moscow-based watchdog group, characterized the recent moves as an attempt by the Kremlin to bring Russia's media under tighter control.

In the past, Gusinsky sometimes used his media to serve his own political and business interests. Nonetheless, reporting standards generally were considered high, and staff members were fiercely proud of their work.

Like NTV, Sevodnya and Itogi have been known for aggressive reporting that has often been critical of authorities. Without them, Putin will face less harsh coverage of the latest war in Chechnya, high-level corruption, mismanagement and events such as last summer's failed rescue of the crew aboard a sunken nuclear submarine.

NTV reaches a national audience, and under Gusinsky it was the first medium to awaken citizens to the horror of the first war in the separatist republic of Chechnya, which was fought from 1994 to 1996. Sevodnya and Itogi had small readerships, for the most part liberal intellectuals and politicians in Moscow, but their closures sent a powerful warning to journalists in Russia's provinces--and encouragement to regional administrators who seek to control them.

"The process is even worse in the provincial press because the hunt against Media-Most was perceived as a signal to unleash a campaign against local media and make them obedient to the local authorities," said Dmitri Sabov, deputy editor of Itogi.

Former NTV managers are hoping to find a national home for the TNT news broadcasts being produced by Gusinsky loyalists.

The only apparent hope is a hastily hatched plan to cobble together a national network consisting of Gusinsky's TNT and TV-6, a Moscow channel owned by Gusinsky's erstwhile adversary, media oligarch Boris A. Berezovsky.

Although Gusinsky and Berezovsky have cooperated in the past when it suited them, their deep enmity raises questions about how long such a joint venture could last. With both men in self-imposed exile, the one thing that unites them at the moment is their dislike of the Putin administration.

Russian authorities are seeking to extradite Gusinsky from Spain on embezzlement charges. Berezovsky's whereabouts are unknown.

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