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Firing of Journalist Seen as Another Sign of Russian Censorship

Network cancels TV program. Its host had spoken out after a controversial interview was pulled off the air.

June 03, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — It wasn't the scoop to end all scoops, but as stories go, it was a pretty good one.

It was also the last one for Russia's popular television news show, "Namedni," which was canceled Wednesday and its host, Leonid Parfyonov, fired after refusing to can an exclusive interview with the widow of former Chechen leader Zelim- khan Yandarbiyev, who prosecutors in Qatar believe was killed by Russian secret service agents.

Parfyonov, one of Russia's most widely watched TV journalists, was abruptly dismissed by NTV in what is seen as a significant new move to clamp down on what remains of an independent broadcast media in Russia.

"I do not have any other definition for what happened, except for censorship," Parfyonov said in an interview. He said he was told the segment was cut at the request of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB.

There were protests all over Moscow, where Parfyonov's "60 Minutes"-like Sunday evening program, with its lively mixture of political, business and entertainment news, shined in a television news culture that infrequently focuses on sensitive issues such as the war in Chechnya or the Kremlin's political opposition.

The "Namedni" anchor once hired a lip reader to try to discern what Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was saying during a video clip of a government officials' meeting handed out by the Kremlin to the networks without sound.

Most of Russia's independent television stations have either been shut down or taken over by the state. NTV was once one of Russia's most aggressive and lively news venues. But after the network was taken over in 2001 by a subsidiary of the state-owned gas company, Gazprom, its programs gradually became less controversial.

"Needless to say, the firing of Leonid Parfyonov is an extremely unsettling and alarming signal," said Manana Aslamazyan, director of Internews, a nongovernmental organization that supports independent media in Russia. "It means that despite all these endless promises that the government will not interfere in the activities of the mass media in Russia, the authorities have not abandoned their old practices.... In Parfyonov's case, this interference was as rude and blatant as it could be."

NTV Director-General Nikolai Senkevich said on the network's nightly news broadcast Wednesday that the decision to fire Parfyonov was related to "a gross violation of the ... employment contract, and a violation of corporate ethics."

Senkevich appeared to be referring to Parfyonov's decision to provide portions of the interview with the widow, Malika Yandarbiyeva, to the Russian newspaper Kommersant after NTV management pulled it off the air. The paper published quotes from the interview along with Parfyonov's account of the decision to take the segment out of the program, after it had aired in eastern parts of Russia.

Yandarbiyev, who acted briefly as the breakaway Chechen republic's head of state, died when his car was bombed in Qatar in February. Two Russian agents are on trial in Qatar for the killing, but Russia says they were in the Persian Gulf emirate investigating terrorism and were not involved in the murder. Parfyonov said his reporter conducted the only interview given so far by the former rebel leader's widow.

"The piece ... could not be construed as an indirect innuendo that the assassination of Yandarbiyev may have been the handiwork of the Russian secret services," Parfyonov told The Times. "Even indirectly, Malika never accused anyone. She just talked about her family's relationships with the emir's family, talked about her son wounded in the assassination."

After the program aired in three eastern sections of the country, Parfyonov said, NTV Deputy Director Alexander Gerasimov told him that he was taking it off the air. "Gerasimov's direct words were as follows: 'Well, you have been told not to put this thing on the air. Besides, the Bureau [a nickname for the FSB] asked us not to. Everybody asked."

Parfyonov said he was fired because he wouldn't keep quiet. "I simply could not agree to cover my name with shame," he said. "I managed to arrange an exclusive interview. They made the decision to take the piece off the air, but they wanted to make it look like it was my decision.... And I decided I was not going to keep my mouth shut."

Earlier Wednesday, Gerasimov told Echo of Moscow radio that NTV had received "an oral request not to put anything on the air because, the special services believe, it could affect the decision that the Qatari court will pass."

Gerasimov said he believed the issue was too "delicate and subtle" to discuss. "If specialists believe our fellow citizens may be harmed by our actions, the matter is not subject to discussion, no matter what one thinks of our fellow citizens," he said.

But Parfyonov had rejected that argument in an interview Tuesday with the Izvestia newspaper.

"Don't teach me how to love my homeland," he said. "I have worked as a journalist for 25 years, and all these 25 years, I've heard, 'It's not the right time yet, brother, not the right time.' It is about time to understand that information is valuable in itself. It cannot be harmful, or useful, or useless."

The incident was not Parfyonov's first run-in with new NTV management. The network in November killed a "Namedni" segment on former Kremlin journalist Yelena Tregubova, who had written a tell-all book about covering the Kremlin.

After widespread publicity over her book, "Tales of a Kremlin Digger," a bomb exploded outside Tregubova's apartment, but no one was injured.

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Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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