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American Journalism Review
Blacked Out  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 2001

Blacked Out   

A firsthand look at the demise of Russia's only independent television network.

By Peter Baker
Peter Baker is a Washington Post foreign correspondent.     

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   » NTV Responds


T HE TELEPHONE RANG around 4:30 a.m. at Andrei Norkin's Moscow home, rousing him out of a deep sleep. For Norkin, an anchor at Russia's NTV television network, a middle-of-the-night call could mean anything--earthquake, terrorist explosion, political upheaval. But this particular pre-dawn call would mean upheaval far closer to home.
On the line was Jill Dougherty, CNN's Moscow bureau chief and an acquaintance. Did he know anything about security forces arriving at NTV to take over station headquarters? she asked. Norkin, no longer so bleary-eyed, answered that he did not but would check it out. A hurried call to his news director confirmed the worst: Gazprom, the state-controlled energy monopoly that had recently orchestrated a boardroom coup to install its own management at NTV, had now sent in a platoon of burly security men to capture network headquarters. The journalists had barricaded themselves in their office when Gazprom took over 11 days before, many staying around the clock. But as the days passed, only a few would remain overnight. By the time of the takeover, they'd relaxed and weren't quite so vigilant.
Norkin called Dougherty back and quickly threw on some clothes. He and his wife, Yulia Norkina, who worked as an editor on a history program on NTV, raced down Moscow's darkened streets to the Ostankino broadcasting center in the shadow of the giant tower once used by the Soviets to air their propaganda. What was beginning in those early morning hours on Saturday, April 14, was to become a pivotal day in the course of Russia's post-Communist era, the day that the country's only major independent television network effectively fell into the hands of the Kremlin and its allies. It was an event that one scholar, Michael McFaul, would later call the biggest setback to democracy in Russia since Boris Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire on Parliament in 1993.
At the center of it were correspondents like Norkin, journalists trying to do a tough job in a tough country, caught up in a conflict of operatic proportions, born out of money, politics, power and betrayal. While the business tycoons and the government prosecutors engaged in their power play, the journalists were confronted with a moment of truth. What would they do? How would they respond?
Many eyes were on Norkin, who had become a vocal spokesman for the defiant journalists in the days leading up to the confrontation at NTV headquarters. He arrived at station headquarters around 5:40 a.m. He immediately noticed that the normal security guards were gone; in their place were plainclothesmen hired by the new Gazprom-installed general director, Boris Jordan, a Russian American investment banker.
The security men did not stop Norkin or his wife from entering the building, but the elevators were blocked from stopping at NTV's eighth-floor studios, so they went up to the ninth floor instead and walked down. Norkin's wife showed her pass to the security man on the eighth floor and was allowed in; Norkin's name, however, was on a list that left him barred from entering. After several minutes of waiting, the security man came back and let him in.
Marianna Maximovskaya, a daytime news anchor, was one of the others on the blacklist. She too had been an outspoken defender of NTV's independence from Gazprom. When she arrived at Ostankino in that early morning chaos, she was told that she was being fired.
Like the rest of the NTV team, she was caught off guard by Jordan's dead-of-night move, which came just 15 hours after he held a news conference suggesting he would pressure the protesting journalists out through financial means, not physical force. The journalists had successfully refused to surrender their headquarters since the Gazprom-organized shareholders meeting resulted in the ouster of
General Manager Yevgeny Kiselyov in favor of Jordan on April 3. Thinking no action was imminent, Kiselyov himself decided it was safe enough to fly to Spain to consult network founder Vladimir Gusinsky. "We didn't expect it at all," said Maximovskaya. "During the first night we were expecting something, but it didn't happen. So we decided they were too smart to do this."

T HE SHOWDOWN AT OSTANKINO had been building for nearly a year--or maybe four years, or even seven, depending on where you choose to begin the story. Vladimir Gusinsky, a former theater director who had gotten rich in the early days of the new Russia by founding a bank that held government deposits, had begun dabbling in media with the creation of a daily newspaper called Sevodnya (Today). But he had bigger visions. And so when a disgruntled state television journalist named Yevgeny Kiselyov showed up at his door asking for funding to create an independent public affairs program, Gusinsky upped the ante. Why not create an entire independent network?
Thus was born NTV. After relentless lobbying, Gusinsky's people persuaded President Yeltsin to give them the license to a seldom-watched channel. The new network went on the air in January 1994. It was mainly Kiselyov at first, and often little more than a political tool for Gusinsky. But the fledgling news operation made a name for itself with courageous coverage of the first war in Chechnya that raged from 1994 to 1996.
On the outs with the Kremlin as a result, Gusinsky earned his way back into Yeltsin's good graces by signing up for his 1996 reelection campaign. Not only did the network lavish coverage on the president and ignore his Communist rival, Gennady Zyuganov, Gusinsky sent one of his top men, Igor Malashenko, to help run Yeltsin's campaign.
All of which set the stage for Gusinsky's fatal mistake. Hungry for cash to run his outfit, Gusinsky took loans secured by Gazprom--in effect a state subsidy as a reward for past service to the Kremlin. Little did he understand then that this would lead to his undoing.
Gusinsky swerved politically again in 1999, using NTV to promote the prospective candidacy of an old patron, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, to succeed Yeltsin. But the Kremlin used another station, the state-owned ORT, to destroy Luzhkov in favor of Yeltsin's handpicked successor, the obscure former KGB agent Vladimir Putin.
The true price of Gusinsky's decision started to become clear just four days after Putin's inauguration as president in May 2000. Mask-wearing, gun-toting tax police raided Gusinsky's offices. Within a few weeks, he was thrown into jail. When he was released, he fled the country, only to find Russian prosecutors pursuing him through extradition hearings in Spain. In addition, authorities threw his chief financial officer in prison, launched another 35 raids, seized 1.5 tons of documents, froze his bank, convened liquidation hearings and even summoned a top anchor for questioning. The government claimed it was all about fraud. Gusinsky claimed it was all about politics.
Just as his clash with Putin came back to haunt him, so now did another past battle. In 1997, Gusinsky had been the losing bidder in a state auction for shares in a telecommunications company. The winner was a coalition organized in part by a young financier, Boris Jordan. In retaliation, Gusinsky struck back at those he blamed, including the state privatization chief, Alfred Kokh, who had taken a $100,000 book advance from a company linked to the winner of the auction. Gusinsky fanned the flames of scandal--and made a permanent enemy.
So last year when Gazprom, now under new Kremlin management, began to move against Gusinsky, it found the perfect man to lead its campaign--Alfred Kokh. By April 2001, he had outmaneuvered his old rival, calling a shareholders' meeting where he mustered a quorum to dump Gusinsky from the board and appoint his old friend, Jordan, as the new director. Even a court order the night before the meeting that ruled it illegal could not stop Kokh and Gazprom; they persuaded the judge to reverse his own ruling in the morning before the shareholders gathered.
What they evidently had not counted on was the determination of Yevgeny Kiselyov and his band of journalists. Rather than surrender their offices, the editorial team of NTV simply hunkered down, went on the air and launched what amounted to a televised sit-in protesting the change in management.
For all of Gusinsky's meddling over the years, NTV had become the closest thing Russia had ever seen to a professional, hard-hitting, quality news broadcast that questioned power. It had pursued the truth in the Kursk disaster when the government tried to cover it up (see "Smoke Screen," December), brought home the horrors of Chechnya when the government insisted the war was over, revealed the suffering of Russians freezing without power in the Far East because the government had not acted.
Among the Moscow elite, and a decent share of the rest of the population, NTV became the place to go to find out what the state did not want them to know. The journalists who had created such an institution, sometimes in spite of their own ownership, were not about to give it up.
"Gusinsky's position earns my respect," says Andrei Norkin. "Even though he made mistakes, he really built up a television company from scratch that really has no equal in Russia."

V LADIMIR KULISTIKOV SHOWED UP at NTV headquarters sometime after 5 a.m. on April 14, the first member of the new Gazprom management team to breach the lines. A former deputy director at the network, Kulistikov had a falling out with Gusinsky last year and left to become head of the state-run RIA news service. Now the head of the state news service was taking over as editor in chief of the independent NTV.
Kulistikov's arrival did not go unnoticed. As he made his way down the hallways, he was trailed by a video camera operated by an old colleague. Kulistikov testily demanded that the camera be turned off. Another former coworker, once one of his best friends, bitterly accused him of "Stalinism" and muttered about the return of the "gulags." How could he betray them?
The tension between one-time compatriots was deep. Other former NTV hands who had gone over to the other side began showing up as well--Tatyana Mitkova, one of the most famous anchors, and Leonid Parfyonov, host of a popular show. Both had quit in recent days, accusing their leader, Kiselyov, of using them "as cannon fodder" in a vainglorious power struggle. Now they were back, ready to work for Jordan, and they were not the only ones.
The new management had already decided to yank the scheduled morning team off the air in favor of its own loyal anchor. Olga Belova, a young NTV correspondent who had been suspended a few days earlier when she refused to put up graphics connected with the team's anti-Gazprom protest, was back and would read the 8 a.m. news. The family was being torn apart. Friendships were ending right there and then. It was time to pick sides.
Boris Jordan arrived at 7 a.m. and convened an emotional meeting of all the journalists on hand. He was there only to save the station from financial ruin, he said, and promised not to interfere with editorial policy if the journalists stayed.
Some believed him; most did not. And so Andrei Norkin, Marianna Maximovskaya and most of the best-known journalists gathered around a table and began writing letters of resignation--"I consider it impossible for myself to work under these conditions," or variations on that theme. One of the reporters asked the obvious question: To whom would they address the letters? They didn't recognize the legality of the meeting that had installed Jordan. Finally, they decided to address each letter to "the general director" but without listing a name.
The reporters then fanned out through the hallways, taking down giant promotional photographs of themselves on the walls. They emerged from the building in the hazy early morning light, pictures under their arms, and marched across the street into the offices of TNT, a small cable channel still controlled by Gusinsky. There they would make their stand, they declared. But it was false bravado. They had lost NTV, and they knew it.
"They killed the NTV company," Maximovskaya said in the TNT corridors. "What's happening to our country now?"
Most of the country still had no idea anything had happened. In Russia, as in many places with a totalitarian history, control of television has been equated to control of the nation. Soviet troops shot and killed demonstrators in Lithuania in 1991 rather than allow them to take over the airwaves. More violence broke out at the Ostankino broadcasting center in north Moscow in 1993 when Yeltsin's enemies tried to force him from office.
This time there had been no bloodshed, but the consequences were enormous. The only two other major nationwide networks, RTR and ORT, already were under control of the state. Without NTV, much of the nation would have far less access to information not subject to the whims and influences of the government.
But Kiselyov's crew had a contingency plan. As they rushed into the TNT offices that morning, they immediately began preparing to broadcast an 8 a.m. morning news report on schedule with their own takeover as the top story. And here was the ace: They would air it not only on TNT's lightly watched frequency, but also on a pirated NTV feed. A studio was hastily prepared. Norkin put on his jacket. The cameras rolled.
It was over in six minutes. Once the Gazprom management figured out what was happening, it dispatched technicians to find the link and quickly sever it. Television screens in millions of homes around the country shifted from Norkin speaking in mid-sentence to a multicolored test pattern.

W ITHIN HOURS, THE SEMBLANCE of a makeshift news operation began taking form in the crowded corridors of TNT. Known mostly for its sports and entertainment programming, TNT began preempting its cartoons, women's shows and American wrestling matches to make room for a new slate of news broadcasts by the refugees from its sister station. Producers scribbled out the names of their old NTV shows on paper and taped them to doors of offices they had commandeered. Someone ran out to buy videotape, since they had not been able to take any from NTV before their hurried departure. They began calling friends at Western news stations to borrow footage, since they no longer had any archives.
"We don't have enough stuff," complained Andrei Kravchenko, a newscast director. "The equipment, it's not suitable for doing broadcasts."
Grigory Kritchevsky, the top news director, wandered through the halls looking a little shell-shocked. His face was drawn; huge bags hung under his eyes. He quietly instructed some assistants to find computers. He was trying to direct traffic, but the halls were mobbed not only with NTV journalists who had quit but also companions from the Russian and international media who were descending on the building.
By midday, both versions of NTV were on the air with competing newscasts--NTV and NTV-in-exile. At 4 p.m., Maximovskaya went on from the studio at TNT in front of a hastily produced graphic called "Sevodnya on TNT," a reference to the main news segment from NTV. "Have no doubt that you're watching NTV," she told viewers.
The difference was obvious on the other channel. Olga Belova was leading off the news with a report on the television takeover that featured Boris Jordan speaking for several long minutes as he cast events in his own terms. Belova then went to a reformist parliamentarian who criticized the move, but then to two top political leaders who characterized it as nothing more than a business dispute. None of the journalists who quit en masse was shown speaking on air.
For Belova, it was an emotional moment. As soon as she left the set, she returned to the newsroom, huddled in a corner with her producer, took deep drags on a cigarette and began to quietly cry. "My nerves are no longer steady," she said a few minutes later after she had collected herself. "People who you considered not so much friends but more or less colleagues tell you things to your face, several things that were very hard...." She left the thought unfinished.
Norkin ended up finishing it for her in a stairwell across the street. "Now friends have found themselves on different sides," he said sadly. "For me, it's hard to imagine how I could meet with those people."

A S SOON AS HE HEARD the news in Spain, Yevgeny Kiselyov hopped on a plane back for Moscow to rally his beleaguered troops. He arrived at Ostankino in the early evening to find hundreds of journalists and others waiting for him there, wondering what they would do next. TNT was fine as a stopgap underground protest operation but could hardly be a permanent alternative. It reaches only 75 million of Russia's 145 million people and then only if the local stations decide to take the feed from Moscow.
Kiselyov told the journalists that he had found a new home for them, another smaller station that they could build into a new independent network. TV-6, owned by another media oligarch in exile, Boris Berezovsky, had offered to make Kiselyov its general director and to accept his team.
But it would quickly become clear that it was not so easy. For one thing, the current staff at TV-6 was not all that excited about being displaced, and resignations began flowing the next day. For another, Gusinsky's enemies made clear they were not content simply to have captured NTV.
The 72 hours following the takeover would bring hauntingly familiar sequels. On the evening of Monday, April 16, Mikhail Berger, the editor of Sevodnya, Gusinsky's daily newspaper, was preparing to send the Tuesday issue to the printer when he heard from the publisher, Dmitri Biryukov. In recent weeks, Biryukov had teamed up with Gazprom to put together a 50-percent-plus-one-share majority in the Sem Dnei (Seven Days) publishing house that ran Gusinsky's print operations. Now Biryukov ordered Berger not to send the paper to the presses and told him he was fired. Sevodnya was dead.
The next morning, Tuesday, April 17, the staff of Itogi, the Gusinsky-founded newsmagazine published in conjunction with Newsweek (owned by the Washington Post Co.), showed up at the office for a hurriedly called meeting with Biryukov. Security guards kept them waiting on the street, refusing to allow them into the newsroom. Instead, they were directed one by one to the personnel office, where they were forced to sign "redundancy" agreements--the Moscow term for their walking papers.
The journalists have not given up. Berger and his Itogi counterpart, Sergei Parkhomenko, have vowed to start new publications independent of the Kremlin. And Kiselyov's team has begun appearing on TV-6, despite the internal strife. Whether they can remake what was taken away, however, remains uncertain at best.
Maximovskaya put an optimistic face on it. "We still have a chance to prove that nonstate television may exist."

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