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Firing of Media Chief Points Up Kremlin Politics

Russian American may have lost directorship of state-controlled firm because he kept insiders from getting advertising revenue, analysts say.

January 21, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — It was an outcome soaked in irony: The American who executed a coup two years ago to give the Kremlin control over a leading independent television network suffered the same fate -- apparently having proved insufficiently compliant toward President Vladimir V. Putin and members of the Kremlin "family."

But the sudden dismissal of Russian American Boris Jordan as director of Gazprom-Media may not have been a clear-cut issue of freedom of speech, media experts here say.

It may have had as much to do with Jordan's having made enemies in a murky world where politics, power and profits intersect. Specifically, his go-it-alone practice of selling advertising for Gazprom-Media's NTV network is believed to have ruffled the feathers of a potent interest group allied with the Kremlin.

Whatever factors led to Jordan's ouster by Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly that owns Gazprom-Media, his removal Friday sent a message that authorities have tightened their grip on national television as Russia readies for elections to parliament this year and an expected reelection campaign by Putin in 2004.

Jordan declined to be interviewed Monday, pointing out through an aide that he had not been removed from all his posts at NTV and that he was still involved in severance talks. However, he scheduled a news conference for today.

Analysts believe that Jordan's fate was probably sealed in November when Putin singled out NTV for criticism and hinted that Jordan, as an American, might have divided loyalties vis-a-vis Russia. At a meeting with a group of media managers from other companies, Putin alleged that NTV endangered lives in a quest for ratings and profits when it broadcast the start of the police assault in October on a Moscow theater where about 750 people had been taken hostage.

"Thank God that someone can make money, but not at any price -- not at the cost of the blood of your own citizens -- if, of course, those who do this consider these to be their own citizens," Putin was quoted as saying.

An aide to Jordan insisted afterward that Putin was misinformed and that NTV had not broadcast live scenes of the assault but only earlier troop movements, as had other TV stations. But the presidential accusation stuck and left a stigma on the station.

Subsequent reports said that Putin also was angered that NTV had hired lip readers to interpret a private conversation, taped soon after the beginning of the hostage crisis, between the president, Interior Minister Boris Gryslov and Federal Security Service Director Nikolai P. Patrushev. The fragment of conversation, released only after the theater had been stormed, seemed to indicate that Putin and his chiefs had been intent on an armed assault from the start.

In addition, anonymous advertisements have appeared in several newspapers recently charging that NTV's coverage of a corruption scandal involving Kazakhstan's leadership has recklessly endangered pending oil agreements between Russia and Kazakhstan.

Jordan, an investment banker, was hired by Gazprom to carry out the 2001 takeover of NTV from the management hired by business tycoon Vladimir A. Gusinsky, a political foe of the president who remains in self-imposed exile. At the time, the takeover was seen by many as a death knell for independent broadcast journalism on the national level in Russia.

But from the start, Jordan insisted that he wanted only to put NTV on its feet financially and promised to retain the station's high standards and as much of the news team as he could. Under his management, NTV evolved into a somewhat tamer version of its former self but still was more enterprising and more apt to be critical of official viewpoints than the two other national networks, which are state-owned.

That greater independence was especially apparent during the hostage seizure in October, when NTV led its rivals in reporting on the anguish of the families of the hostages, about 130 of whom died when police used a powerful incapacitating gas to end the siege. One newspaper said afterward that NTV had taken "an anti-presidential stance in its coverage of the tragic events."

But the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta pointed out Monday that Jordan's independent business practices may have alienated Kremlin insiders.

NTV is the only big federal TV channel that has not sold advertising directly or indirectly through Video International, a company founded by Russian Mass Communications Minister Mikhail Y. Lesin. This meant that NTV has avoided paying commissions for millions of dollars' worth of ads, costing Video International revenue and giving NTV a solid business advantage over rival networks.

"Some people in government circles always made clear that Jordan had created enemies with his own hands," said Manana Aslamazyan, director of Internews Russia, a nongovernmental organization that works to foster independence in Russia's broadcast media. "A decision to be independent in advertising is also a political decision, and clearly he made enemies in the advertising sector."

Aslamazyan said that Jordan was not really known as a champion of free speech. She gave the credit for NTV's professionalism primarily to its editorial staff.

"Jordan was always tactical and always loyal to the government," she said. His only weakness, she added, may have been that he was not quick enough to sense what the Kremlin wanted without being told.

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