His Excellency Vladimir Putin
President of the Russian Federation
VIA FAX: 011-7-095-206-5173 and 206-6277
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent organization dedicated to the defense of press freedom around the world, is deeply concerned about the takeover by Gazprom-Media of news outlets previously owned by the Media-Most company. Gazprom-Media is a subsidiary of Gazprom, a state-run gas monopoly.
After almost a year of official harassment, threats and pursuit through the courts, Gazprom-Media staged a boardroom coup on April 3 that gave it formal control of NTV, Russia's only independent national television station. On April 14, the new Gazprom management team forcibly occupied NTV. Two days later Gazprom ousted the staff of the daily Segodnya, and on April 17 dismissed the editor of the weekly magazine Itogi. Both publications were owned by Media-Most and, like NTV, were among those few media outlets that regularly voiced criticism of government policies, in particular in their coverage of the Chechnya conflict.
Gazprom was the main creditor of Media-Most, and called in its debt last year. Repayment was not forthcoming, and police and tax officials subjected the company to more than two dozen raids and inspections. The company's owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, fled Russia after being charged with fraud on November 13 last year.
Officials including Gazprom-Media's general director Alfred Kokh, who visited CPJ's New York offices on March 16, insist that the dispute between Media-Most and Gazprom is purely financial. However, the heavy-handedness of the April actions leaves the very strong impression that there are political motives behind Gazprom's takeovers. Moreover, financial concerns cannot account for the dismissal of the editor of Itogi, which was both profitable and highly respected. Since the Gazprom-Media takeover, Newsweek, which had jointly published Itogi, has suspended cooperation with the magazine.
In our view, as well as in the view of many Russian journalists and independent analysts, the takeovers of NTV, Itogi, and Segodnya are not a result of a financial dispute but rather represent part of a concerted effort to silence media that are critical of your government's policies. We are concerned by the aggressive tactics consistently used by tax police against Media-Most outlets, including the most recent tax police move on April 16 against the chief accountant of the Gusinsky-controlled TNT cable station, which sheltered some of the NTV programs right after the Gazprom takeover.
As a result of these takeovers and pressures, the government's primary critics in the media are now silenced or sidelined.The Russian government already controls the two remaining national television broadcasters, ORT and RTR, and exerts enormous influence over hundreds of newspapers through a system of subsidies. For a healthy democracy to flourish in Russia, it is vital that its citizens have access to a variety of sources of news and information. CPJ is dismayed that the takeover of NTV and Itogi and the closure of Segodnya significantly narrow that range of options.
We believe that the independence of the press, to which Your Excellency has often referred in speeches, must be upheld in Russia in deed as well as in word. CPJ calls on you to reverse the state's growing consolidation of control over the press, and to ensure that Russian journalists work in an atmosphere free of political pressure and intimidation.
Ann K. Cooper