1. How NTV was taken away
This is how my comrades Decembrists who came to the reception room of the president’s administration have formulated Putin’s accusation of strangling freedom of press: “The closing down of independent TV channels. Thanks to you the television ceased to show the truth and is daily lying to the people.” After they have come to power on the elections of March 26th 2004 Putin and his group have began to clean up the media space. Opposition mass media belonging to the oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky suffered the first repressions. There were precise reasons for this: Gusinsky (and his media) have openly taken the side of the movement Fatherland – All Russia of Yuri Luzhkov and Evgeny Primakov on the 1999 parliamentary elections. Also Gusinsky’s structures have kept sympathies to Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko, but they were less supportive of it. In relation to the refusal of Yuri Luzhkov and Evgeny Primakov to participate in the presidential elections, in the beginning of February 2000 Gusinsky and the management of the Most Company declared their decision (a fatal one, as it turned out later) not to support Vladimir Putin on the presidential elections of March 26th 2000.
Before we go to the defeat of Gusinsky’s media by the president and his people, let us make a short review of these media. First of all, there is of course the NTV television company. In spring 2003 Igor Malashenko, former general director of Ostankino, former editor-in-chief of Ostankino Oleg Dobrodeyev and author of the Itogi program Evgeny Kisilev approached him with the demand to support the creation of NTV, a new independent television company. On July 12th 1993 NTV was registered. According to Yeltsin’s orders, on December 22nd 1993 NTV was granted the right to start broadcasting on the Fourth channel and from November 11th 1996 – the right to a 24-hours use of the Fourth channel. On January 25th 1998 NTV was given the status of an all-Russian television company. In February 1993 the Segodnya newspaper was established with the active participation of Gusinsky. In the end of January 1997 Gusinsky declared about the official registration of the Media-Most media holding. The holding consisted of: shares of NTV and NTV-Plus (created in July 1996), Echo of Moscow radio station and the Sem Dney publishing house, publishing the journals Itogi (created in 1996), the newspapers Segodnya and Sem Dney. Subsequently, from august 1999 the new satellite radio station Sport-FM was added to the holding. In reality all sorts of small units were also part of Gusinsky’s holding, but the general reader does not need these details; let us skip them.
The NTV turned out modern and new although obviously it bore the owner’s stamp. In June 1999 Gusinsky’s television merits were marked by the Teffi award – for his personal contribution to the development of television.
Until his forced leave outside the country Gusinsky’s political sympathies invariably laid on the side of Moscow’s mayor Yuri Luzhkov and his structures supported the movement Fatherland – All Russia on the 1999 elections. Gusinsky made the acquaintance of Luzhkov and his wife, Elena Baturina, back in 1987 when he was starting his businessman career.
By creating the Media-Most holding in 1997 Gusinky practically turned out to be the first Russia’s “media-magnate”, someone like Rupert Murdok or Ted Turner on Russia’s scale. He considered the mass media as a source of revenues. Here it should be mentioned that the mass media created for profits doubtlessly tend to give the viewer, listener or reader all the true, all the sensational, all the secrete information, while the mass media that serve as instruments of propaganda in someone’s favor will always distort, cut, hide information in their favor. Mass media can be politically engaged, why not, but in this case there has to be enough of them and they have to belong to different political forces. The citizen will have the total possible set of various points of view and switching channels on his television he will be able to receive the complete information. Like the National-Bolsheviks Decembrists have justly pointed out, now, Putin’s group has usurped all the information – it has taken over all the largest TV channels and thus daily presents only one kind of information to the viewer – the one it wants. And thus it forms the worldview of most of the country’s population, tells them how to understand. People weak of will and feeble of mind are satisfied with the official version of reality. Those who are stronger look for information like in dissidents’ times: in Radio Liberty or BBC for example. This is informational violence; it is in fact a crime of Putin’s group. But let us return to Gusinsky.
Here Gusinsky interests us not so much as an oligarch, but as a media-magnate. He has discovered that exclusively non-engaged mass media can be commercially lucrative (and not needing financing from interested structures). This is the role aspired by the mass media of Gusinsky’s holding. Nevertheless, Gusinsky was not spared by the total inclusion of the economical elite into the political whirlwind and has introduced serious corrections into his position. In other words he did not manage to stay unengaged and his principal creation – NTV – did not stay unengaged. Television is a serious political weapon; a Siegfried’s sword of sorts and the temptation to use it was great. By putting NTV and himself in opposition to Putin Gusinsky has signed his death warrant. Actually, it should be noticed in Gusinsky’s justification that Putin and his group would have taken the channel from him anyway because they govern the country from the position of absolutism and just physically do not tolerate the presence of such a powerful weapon as a TV channel in someone else’s hands.
Gusinsky has drawn many fresh talents into NTV. His producer’s education came at hand here. They say that Gusinsky did not like to personally meddle with politics until 1999. They affirm that it was Igor Malashenko, NTV’s general director, who has enthralled him with political projects. (Although back in January 1996 Gusinsky joined a coalition of bankers created by Boris Berezovsky in Davos to support Boris Yeltsin in the presidential elections).
The first attack on Gusinsky was made back in 1994. Employees of the main department of the president’s security attacked the Most-Bank office in the city hall, without presenting any charges. It was Korzhakov who gave the order. This attack is interpreted differently but most probably it was the first sign of resentment of the people in should-straps. In the end today we see even sharper oppositions of the same forces: people in should-straps have put Khodorkovsky in prison. At the time Gusinsky went to London for six months. Repressions did not follow and soon Yeltsin dismissed Korzhakov. Actually, now we are interested by the freedom of the mass media and the access of the citizen to total information about what happens in this country and in the world and not about the war between bankers and officers.
The next attack on Gusinsky and on the NTV Company happened in December 1997. The State antitrust committee opened a case against NTV about the violation of the antitrust legislation. The goal was to make NTV pay for the broadcasting of the television signal on commercial and not State tariffs, which were two-three times lower. Then NTV was saved by the presidential order of January 28th 1998 that gave NTV the status of an all-Russian television company. Then there was the scandal about the protest of patriarch Alexy II against the airing of Martin Scorsese’s The Passion of Christ on NTV. Bu these were minor problems.
Large-scale confrontations with the Kremlin began in 1999 in the midst of the electoral campaign to the State Duma. The competition between the Kremlin who supported the Unity block, it has created, and Fatherland – All Russia, supported by Gusinsky, kept growing. Gusinsky has actively joined the informational war on Luzhkov’s side, competing with the ORT channel, which continued its attacks on Luzhkov and Primakov more harshly. The Russians did not yet forget the vicissitudes of this story, unprecedented by its rage, vividness and scandal. Here is how it looked like in short. Dorenko accused Luzhkov of taking part in the murder of the American Tate, shareholder of the Radisson-Slavyanskaya Hotel. Primakov was accused of taking part in an attempt on Georgia’s president Shevarnadze. Less large-scale accusations were news about Moscow’s Bank financing Luzhkov’s pedigree stallion in Germany at a cost of about $300-400 million. After Primakov has had an operation on his hip, Dorenko made it the subject of his program. He demonstrated a video made during the operation (naturally, not Primakov’s). ORT won in this confrontation between ORT and NTV. The fight between two political clans and two TV giants was added spice by the fact that the ORT owner who hired the TV killer Dorenko was Berezovsky. (There is some information that Korzhakov effectuated the first attack on Gusinsky’s people on Berezovsky’s demand). The scandalous confrontation of the two TV channels in 1999 with the participation of the brilliant (someone would say disgusting) TV killer Dorenko is a clear example of the scandalous freedom of speech. Its contrary is the infamous silence of today’s channels, their total submission to a single boss, their hiding of the truth.
The Kremlin remembered Gusinsky’s position on the State Duma elections and started its vengeance. Even before the elections Vnesheconombank demanded Media-Most and NTV Plus to return two credits of $62,2 million. The Kremlin’s position was voiced by the former head of the president’s administration Voloshin who declared that Media-Most was receiving more State credits than the rest of the media and that it must pay. Evgeny Kisilev accused the head of administration of lying and in the Segodnya newspaper Vnesheconombank was called “a bureau that executes special orders from the president’s administration”. On December 14th 1999 a court order followed: it had to pay. Most-Bank was forced to agree and pay. At the same time Most-Bank was accused of not paying 650 million rubles to the State Customs Committee. Verifications of the Most-Bank and Media-Most documents followed one after another.
After the elections the relations between the Kremlin and Media-Most did not improve. The Kremlin did not enjoy the fact that in February 2000 Gusinsky declared that NTV would not support Putin’s candidacy on the presidential elections of March 26th 2000. Neither did the Kremlin enjoy the informational policy of NTV about the covering of the Chechen campaign. The position of the Media-Most media was strikingly different from the official interpretation of the second Chechen war and for Gusinsky at the time it was the only possibility to give blow after blow to the Kremlin and to Vladimir Putin personally, whose rating depended largely from successes in the war in Chechnya.
Gusinsky’s conflict with Putin’s group could not have finished in his favor. On June 13th 2000 Gusinsky was arrested and sent to the Butirka prison. The formal reason of the arrest was the case opened back in 1998 on charges of fraud. The NTV owner was accused of fraud and money laundering, supposedly two billion rubles. On the third day the Prosecutor General calmed the public with the following statement: “Vladimir Gusinsky’s cellmates are intellectuals. They both have a higher education degree.” The Prosecutor General also said that the case was opened for violations in the privatization of Russian video-11th channel. According to the Prosecutor General back in 1996 Gusinsky “joined a criminal conspiracy with the head of Russian video Rozhdestvensky. In result he received the rights to someone else’s property by way of fraud and breach of trust by a group of people who abused their functions.”
This was the first arrest of the greatest businessman; the owner of the biggest TV channel, a media-magnate, and it caused a choc in the whole world. Suddenly two weeks later the Prosecutor General released Gusinsky and allowed him to go abroad. According to Gusinsky, when he was in prison he was forced to sign an agreement about selling Media-Most shares. As it is known the media-magnate left for Spain, but the Spanish police arrested him on December 12th 2000 on a new order of the RF Prosecutor General. Why such a radical turn: they released him and then asked to arrest him? Because Gusinsky refused to fulfill the agreement about the shares. In April 2001 the Spanish court refused to extradite Gusinsky on the RF demand, judging the reasons of the Russian investigators insufficient. Then the Prosecutor General brought new charges against Gusinsky and arrested Most finance director, Anton Titov. When in April 2001 I was sent to the Lefortovo prison Anton Titov was already there. He was charged with a conspiracy with Gusinsky to “steal over five billion rubles”. According to the investigation Titov worked out a scheme on transferring Gazprom credits abroad in 1998-99.
On July 9th 2002 Gusinsky surrendered: he finally got rid of his media empire in Russia and was forced to surrender. We (me, the media, the public) do not know what became the last drop that forced him to sell his media holding. On July 2002 the holding Gazprom-Media acquired Gusinsky’s media assets. Gazprom received blocking shares of all the largest structures of Gusinsky’s former media empire. The cost of the deal was declared a commercial secret but everybody agrees that Gazprom paid far less than their real market cost. Gazprom’s head Alexey Miller declared that this “acquisition increases the investing attraction of Gazprom-Media assets and creates more favorable conditions for further negotiations with potential investors.” But since then none of these media was transferred to a private company. It is interesting that on December 24th 2002 Cheremushkinsky court of Moscow condemned Anton Titov to three years of prison but amnestied him and released him in the courtroom. Apparently his release was a condition Gusinsky fixed to sell the assets of his media empire. From the moment NTV was transferred to Gazprom few traces were left of its former greatness. A crisis of the NTV team followed: Evgeny Kisilev left with a large group of journalists. Part of the journalists stayed and continued to fulfill their informational work more or less decently. Although doubtlessly NTV changed its position about the war in Chechnya and the opposition was given far less coverage. But even such a channel did not satisfy the Kremlin for long. In the end of 2004 NTV was destroyed once and for all. One after another the programs Freedom of Speech and Namedni were closed down and the channel’s leadership was changed again. From now on NTV does not differ of the State channels Russia and ORT that have gotten into the Kremlin’s hands long ago.
However the vindictive Kremlin (i.e. the vindictive president Putin) did not leave the former media-magnate Gusinsky alone. In August 2003 he was arrested again, now in Athens. On August 29th the Athenian court bailed him out and later decided like Madrid’s court: there are not enough grounds for an extradition.
I can conclude the story about NTV by a reminder that Putin and his group did not fight against the TV oligarch but were destroying a multitude of opinions, views on our reality and this is freedom of speech. The State oligarch, Putin’s associate, Miller bought our freedom of speech for Putin. Now he owns it.