#7 - JRL 7023
January 18, 2003
Russia Fires TV Network Head
By Sharon LaFraniere
Washington Post Foreign Service
MOSCOW, Jan. 17 -- American financier Boris Jordan, who was chosen by the Kremlin two years ago to run the NTV television network, was fired today from a key post in a move that critics said shows the Kremlin is tightening its control of the media in advance of elections late this year.
Jordan's removal as the head of a subsidiary of the state-controlled natural gas monopoly came after President Vladimir Putin publicly criticized how NTV covered the October seizure of a Moscow theater by Chechen rebels that led to the deaths of 129 hostages.
Jordan, who is of Russian descent, took over NTV after the gas monopoly, Gazprom, wrested it from Russian businessman Vladimir Gusinsky. Under Jordan's management, NTV became markedly more positive in its coverage of the Kremlin, but still managed to preserve a measure of editorial independence. Jordan remains the director of NTV, but is expected to lose that post shortly.
The government's continued dissatisfaction with NTV's reporting, Kremlin opponents said, shows that limits on the Russian news media are tighter than they suspected. "I am surprised, because NTV wasn't as critical as the old NTV, but even this level of freedom was an irritant," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a politically independent legislator from southern Siberia.
"This is still another step away from freedom of speech," he said. "Censorship exists, de facto. The Kremlin thinks there must not be any national television network that criticizes the president."
NTV is the second-most popular television station in Moscow and the third biggest in Russia, following two other state-controlled networks. It is widely viewed in Russia as the most professional and most objective of the three, although like the rest of the Russian television media, its journalists try not to offend the Kremlin.
Jordan said today he agreed to run NTV only if there were no political interference in the coverage, and that for most of 22 months he was able to protect the station's journalists. "In most cases, I have been successful in letting them do their work," he said in a telephone interview.
But he said tensions with the Kremlin rose after the hostage crisis, and Press Minister Mikhail Lesin told him he needed to discuss the differences with Gazprom. At a meeting yesterday, Alexei Miller, the Kremlin appointee who runs Gazprom, told Jordan he was fired. Gazprom's board voted today to dismiss him as head of Gazprom-Media.
Jordan said he didn't expect that kind of reaction. "I felt like there would be pressure, and we would deal with it and go on," he said. "This came as a bit of a surprise."
Alexander Dybal, a Gazprom official who replaced Jordan as head of the subsidiary, told the Russian media that Jordan was fired because of differences over business strategy. Kremlin spokesmen did not comment.
NTV journalists said the Kremlin had three specific complaints about the network's round-the-clock coverage of the four-day seizure of Moscow theater by Chechen terrorists, who held more than 800 people captive. The most serious was the charge that the network endangered the lives of hostages by its live coverage of federal forces storming the theater in pre-dawn light.
In a November meeting with media executives -- to which Jordan was not invited -- Putin attacked the channel for "showing the movements of commandos a few minutes before the raid began." His comments were reported by Kommersant, a Moscow daily newspaper.
"Why was this kind of thing done?" Putin asked. "To boost ratings . . . and in the final analysis, to make money. But not at any price! Not on the blood of our citizens! If, of course, the people who did this consider [those who died] to be their own."
Jordan said a review of NTV's tapes showed Putin was wrong. Leonid Parfyonov, a leading NTV journalist, said in an interview today that the station did not air its footage of the commandos until its correspondent on the scene heard explosions that seemed to signal the raid had begun.
Another irritant was NTV's decision to hire a lip reader to decipher what Putin was saying at a Kremlin meeting with top officials not long after the Chechens seized the theater. The Kremlin released the film of the meeting without sound. The comments NTV deciphered suggested the Kremlin had prepared a plan to storm the theater soon after its seizure. A report on what Putin apparently said did not air until after the raid, but the Kremlin charged that NTV had engaged in a breach of confidence.
The Kremlin also objected to an NTV program that featured interviews with distraught relatives of the hostages, some of whom urged Putin to accede to the terrorists' demand to end the war in Chechnya. A Kremlin spokesman said at the time that despite the dissatisfaction with the network, there was "no official strong-arming of NTV."
Jordan's dismissal casts him in the unlikely role of an advocate of free speech -- a position many journalists consider odd given his initial image as the Kremlin's enforcer at NTV.
Anton Nosik, editor in chief of lenta.ru, a leading Internet news site, said in an interview that he believed Jordan's firing was not related to Putin's press crackdown, because Jordan was eager to obey the Kremlin's wishes. "He is the last person in Russia . . . who should be considered a symbol of freedom of speech," Nosik said. "This is not about freedom of speech. It is about vested interest groups fighting for money and power."
But his was a minority view among members of Russia's progressive democratic elite. "The main thing is NTV was not afraid to ask questions that were uncomfortable for the state," said Oleg Panfilov, who heads the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a media watchdog group. "The state is clearing the information space in preparation for the elections." Russia will hold parliamentary elections at the end of this year and presidential elections in early 2004.
Ryzhkov, the legislator, said opponents of Putin's policies will be hard-pressed to win airtime if NTV joins the other two state-controlled channels as a mouthpiece of the government.