Over the past few weeks, as the NTV saga has unfolded in Moscow, Western attention has focused on the possibility that the Kremlin-dominated Gazprom corporation's takeover of the network could mean the end of independent journalism in Russia.
That threat is real. Over the past few days, Gazprom has taken over NTV, shut down the respected Moscow newspaper Segodnya, and replaced the entire staff of the weekly newsmagazine Itogi.
All three outlets were owned by the exiled media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, through his holding company Media-Most, and were frequently critical of President Vladimir Putin's government. Gazprom executives have disingenuously characterized this boardroom blitzkrieg as a simple effort to recoup the company's investment in Media-Most.
But the NTV takeover is also frightening to journalists in Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and other former Soviet republics. They fear that their own governments, already skilled in the use of bureaucratic and legal harassment to stifle independent reporting, will now follow the NTV precedent by orchestrating the state takeover of independent media and then dressing it up as a business dispute.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, space opened up for independent journalism in all the former republics, because the relationship between government and the media was chaotic and largely undefined. Over the past few years, however, most countries in the region have seen a steep decline in press freedom.
In Ukraine, for example, the abduction and presumed murder of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze last September brought the plight of Ukrainian journalists into sharp relief, while allegations that President Leonid Kuchma directed the killing sparked a political crisis that may yet bring down his government.
In Belarus last July, state authorities were suspected in the disappearance of Russian television journalist Dmitry Zavadsky, who was said to have shot controversial video footage of Belarusian security agents fighting alongside rebels in neighboring Chechnya. And across the region, governments wield hostile tax audits and criminal libel statutes as weapons against journalists who dare to criticize the repression and corruption that permeate all post-Soviet societies to varying degrees.
These legal maneuvers often dress naked repression in liberal drag by invoking "the rule of law." But Gazprom's takeover of NTV marks the debut of a more refined technique of muzzling the independent press using the seemingly apolitical tactics of advanced Western capitalism.
In a press release issued after the controversial NTV shareholder meeting where the board of directors was replaced, Gazprom executive Alfred Kokh spoke in the bland jargon of a Harvard Business School case study. "Gazprom is interested in saving its investment and improving the quality of the NTV management," he said. "Gazprom will strive to enable NTV to remain a symbol of independent television."
Kokh failed to mention that a Russian judge had sought to ban the shareholder meeting altogether as an illegal Gazprom attempt to wrest control of the network from Gusinsky, who has so far fought off Kremlin attempts to extradite him from Spain to face fraud charges in Moscow. The judge reversed his decision 24 hours later, allegedly under severe pressure from the government.
Later that week, Anatoly Blinov, the legal counsel for Gazprom's media division, resigned in disgust. "The powers that be, represented by [Kokh], can't be allowed to use any methods necessary to achieve their ends," Blinov said on NTV's program "Hero of the Day."
Both Gazprom and the Kremlin have repeatedly claimed to respect press freedom in general and the editorial independence of NTV in particular. Yet Russian officials have hardly forsaken Soviet-style information control. This has been obvious in the Kremlin's efforts to censor all news coverage of its war in Chechnya.
"When the nation mobilizes its forces to achieve some task [in this case, crushing the Chechen rebel movement], that imposes obligations on everyone, including the media," Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky told the business newspaper Kommersant in January.
Over the past couple of years, NTV has been the only major Russian media outlet to provide relatively objective coverage of Chechnya, often challenging the Kremlin's relentless propaganda about Russian military successes and Chechen terrorist atrocities. And after the August sinking of the Kursk submarine, NTV castigated Putin personally for his government's amateurish handling of the crisis.
Governments throughout the region still take their policy cues from Moscow, and they are watching the NTV crisis closely. And that's why independent journalists in neighboring countries are so worried.
"Our authorities always say that if something is possible in Russia, then it is possible in Azerbaijan," said Azer Hasret, a journalist with the Baku daily Azadliq. "Azerbaijani and other governments will 'learn' how to shut up the independent media after this case."
The stakes are high. If Gazprom's takeover transforms NTV into yet another Kremlin mouthpiece, the Putin government will have effectively neutralized the only surviving challenge to its hegemony over Russian mass media. That could well inspire Putin's autocratic neighbors, from Kiev to Tashkent, to stifle journalistic dissent under the guise of maximizing shareholder value.
Alex Lupis is the Europe & Central Asia program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Work tel: 212.465.9344 X 101.