The day democracy died in Russia

The once-independent Russian television station NTV has been taken over by the state-dominated natural gas giant Gazprom, in what NTV supporters call a Kremlin-orchestrated assault against critical media. The NTV workers ceded control to Gazprom on Saturday, April 14, after 11 days of resistance. An American financier, Boris Jordan, was appointed general director. This perspective on the events was written by Yevgenia Albats, a Russian member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the Center for Public Integrity. It originally appeared in <i>The Moscow Times</i>.

MOSCOW — So, it has happened. The so-called "tough plan" developed by the Kremlin's top secret analytical group has been put into action. As opposed to the "mild" one that was in use before, this one envisions the quick silencing of any dissident voices — of course, with the aim of making Russia a paradise of imperial glory.

Early Saturday, broad-shouldered guys from Invest-Security (the private security of Boris Jordan’s Sputnik fund investment vehicle), with the help of police bosses, walked into NTV. Except for the company’s own security, there was almost no one there. The cameras that had monitored the entrance the previous week had been removed a couple of days earlier. The state of emergency that kept shifts of reporters in the offices around the clock had been abandoned as well.

Why? The journalists were certain that no siege would happen that day. For one thing, President Vladimir Putin had said that the courts must settle the dispute and a hearing was set for May 17. For another, Jordan himself — as late as Friday afternoon, just 12 hours before the seizure — had said, “no seizure of NTV by force is going to happen.” So the rebellious journalists relaxed.

But their opponents did not. The takeover was carefully prepared. The new guards had lists of journalists who were to be admitted into the NTV newsroom on Saturday, and of those who were not. The building’s elevators had been reprogrammed so that they did not stop at NTV’s eighth floor. Special guards in unmarked Zhiguli automobiles were stationed around the building.

The raid was also perfectly timed. Most of NTV’s supporters were busy cooking Easter cakes and dying eggs. In keeping with Orthodox traditions, Russians visit their relatives’ graves on the day before Easter night. After 70 years of repression and murder, the urge to share something positive with the nation’s dead is very strong, and the authorities knew that people would not abandon it in order to protest in support of NTV as they had the previous weeks.

Further, no newspapers come out on Sundays. No protests would come from the print media. The two other national television stations were already under state control. They didn’t disturb the peace with any significant coverage. The entire burden of covering the weekend’s events fell to Media-MOST’s radio station, Ekho Moskvy.

Jordan’s NTV was able to fill its air time with documentaries and shows that had been taped earlier by journalists who had walked out. Thus, viewers throughout the country were led to believe that nothing dramatic had happened. They continued to see the familiar faces of NTV. Thus, Sunday night viewers saw the satire “Kukly,” criticizing Putin as uncompromisingly as ever. Only later, if ever, did they learn that the show’s main writer, Viktor Shenderovich, had left NTV, together with his colleagues.

Finally, the seizure allowed the Kremlin to resolve its “Ted Turner” problem. The authorities by no means wanted any foreign investor to become an owner of NTV, but in view of the June G-7 meeting, the Kremlin wanted to maintain a democratic facade. Now, Turner will most likely cut off the negotiations himself.

We should give the Kremlin team its due: The plan was very well thought out.

But a bad thing — perhaps even a real tragedy — did in fact happen Saturday morning. As of that moment, all three major national television channels came under complete state control. The Kremlin achieved its goal of acquiring an unchallenged monopoly in the information field. Now its hands are untied. Just as people in Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union knew nothing about the existence of Perm-35, the special labor camp for political prisoners, now the public will be unaware of how the rest of the Kremlin’s “tough plan” unfolds.

The year-long drama of NTV was first and foremost about the state’s plan to monopolize Russia’s information field. That is how this story differs from, say, the editorial changes at the once-famous Atlanta Journal-Constitution (the public demonstrated when editor Bill Kovach was fired there as well) or the reporters’ strike at the New York Daily News when it was purchased by the Tribune Co. of Chicago in 1990.

Don’t be fooled. The NTV story is essentially, fundamentally different. It is not about business, and it is not about the demand of reporters to choose editors they like. It is about politics. It is about democracy in Russia, a democracy that perished early Saturday morning.

Care about freedom of the press? Support independent investigative journalism.

Donate now
Donate now