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Moscow Times
October 16, 2001
NTV Spirit Must Be Kept Alive

Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller has finally broken his silence about his plans for Gazprom-Media, the subsidiary that handles media assets like NTV television, Ekho Moskvy and NTV Plus. Miller said Friday that they will be put up for sale, either separately or together, next year.

The announcement was a long time coming. But the decision is the right one. Gazprom does not need -- and has never needed -- media companies. The state-controlled gas giant should focus on what it knows best -- gas. Miller, who is on a drive to clean up Gazprom's books, has repeatedly said that all noncore units should be spun off.

The question now is: What's next?

Creditor Gazprom seized the media assets this spring after a much-publicized fight with debtor Media-MOST, which protested the NTV takeover as a government clampdown on press freedom. Gazprom said it was trying to collect $473 million in debt. The Kremlin called the matter a corporate feud.

The spat was not as clear cut as any of the parties would have us believe. What is clear is that six months after NTV's takeover, the station continues to operate at a loss, as it has ever since it was founded. Also, fears that NTV would turn into a Kremlin mouthpiece never materialized. While the anti-Kremlin reports that grew increasingly biting before the takeover have been toned down, NTV remains more critical than other channels.

As the controversy surrounding NTV earlier this year proved, the channel is more than just a private company. It is a public asset. Thus its sale, just like the sale of its sister companies, should be transparent, with past and future shareholders taking public responsibility for its financial state and the integrity of its journalists.

With its overbureaucratized structure, Gazprom has a history of pushing through secretive deals. If Miller's mission is to clean up Gazprom's act, he should ensure the highest degree of openness when the decision on how to proceed with the sale is reached.

We don't care much whether Alfred Kokh, the Gazprom-Media chief who said he was quitting Friday, is involved in the sell-off. It is now up to Miller -- and the Kremlin -- to ensure the public is kept in the know.

That said, can NTV be sold to a party willing to pour in much-needed cash while giving its editorial team a degree of independence?

Russia needs an NTV reminiscent of the station Vladimir Gusinsky created in 1993. The professionalism and depth of its coverage introduced Russians to Western norms that they came to count on. The ideal buyer needs to keep those values alive and bring a new level of objectivity to its coverage.

Maybe the better question is: Is there such a buyer?

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