European Court of Human Rights condemns Russia in media case

New York, May 20, 2004—The European Court of Human Rights ruled yesterday that Russian authorities used a politically motivated criminal investigation in 2000 to try to take over the print and broadcast operations of Russian media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky.

The Strasbourg, France–based court said that Russian authorities illegally harassed and arrested Gusinsky on charges of fraud in June 2000 to pressure him to sell his controlling stake in the Media-Most company.

Media-Most owned the popular independent national television channel NTV, whose news and current affairs programs regularly criticized government policies, particularly the war in Chechnya.

“During Mr. Gusinsky’s detention, the Acting Minister for Press and Mass Communications had offered to drop the criminal charges against the applicant if he would sell Media-Most to [the state-controlled natural gas monopoly] Gazprom at a price to be determined by Gazprom,” the seven judge panel wrote in their unanimous ruling.

The court ruled that Russia violated Gusinsky’s right to liberty and security and instructed Russia to pay for his 88,000 Euro (US$105,600) legal expenses. The court rejected Gusinsky’s request for 1.7 million euros (US$ 2.1 million) in damages.

Pavel Laptev, Russia’s representative at the court, immediately condemned the ruling, calling it “defective both in theory and in fact,” the Russian news agency Interfax reported. Russia has three months to appeal the ruling.

Gusinsky—who currently splits his time between Israel and the United States—filed the lawsuit against Russia with the European Court for Human Rights in January 2001.

Vladimir Putin’s victory in the March 2000 presidential elections was followed by an alarming assault on press freedom, including a series of orchestrated legal cases against powerful media barons who had gained enormous wealth and influence during the 1990s.

Gusinsky was arrested in June 2000, charged with embezzling state property, and released three days later after agreeing to sell Media-Most, which controlled NTV, Ekho Moskvy radio, the daily newspaper Segodnya, and the weekly news magazine Itogi.

The federal Prosecutor General’s Office dropped the charges in July 2000 but then announced a new investigation after Gusinsky fled to Spain and refused to sell Media-Most, saying he had previously agreed to do so under duress.

Media-Most’s main creditor, Gazprom, continued to pursue Media-Most through Russia’s politicized courts and forcibly occupied NTV headquarters in April 2001 to install a new management team.

Gazprom swiftly closed two Media-Most outlets known for criticizing the government—Segodnya and Itogi—but retained the management of Media-Most’s Ekho Moskvy, formerly the country’s largest privately held news radio station.

Though media analysts say that NTV has retained some of its independent voice under the new management, the station’s anti-Kremlin tone has softened significantly.