The Washington Post
MOSCOW The forces that took over Russia”s only major independent television network began dismantling the rest of tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky”s media empire yesterday, closing down his respected daily newspaper and preparing to do the same with his weekly newsmagazine.
At the same time, Russian tax police announced that they will prosecute two top executives at Gusinsky”s small cable television station, which has been carrying an underground version of the news produced by the journalists forced out of his flagship NTV network during a pre-dawn takeover Saturday.
The combination of events suggested that Gusinsky”s enemies, fresh from their weekend victory at NTV, have escalated their efforts to eliminate his news outlets, which have produced some of the most skeptical coverage of President Vladimir Putin”s administration since he took power last year. Although Putin has disavowed involvement in the campaign, his appointees head the tax police as well as Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly that seized NTV and is now shutting down Gusinsky”s print publications.
Sevodnya, the first media organ created by Gusinsky and one of Moscow”s most liberal newspapers, was abruptly closed last night just as its Tuesday issue was about to be sent to the printer. Mikhail Berger, the editor in chief, said publisher Dmitri Biryukov had ordered him not to send the issue to the presses and then fired him.
“He has done a great service to the Kremlin today by eliminating a critical paper,” Berger said in an interview late last night. “It”s all connected what is happening with NTV and this.”
Itogi, the newsmagazine published in partnership with Newsweek (owned by The Washington Post Co.), may face an identical fate. Magazine staff members were summoned to an emergency meeting Tuesday where they expect Biryukov to announce that they will be out of work as well, said deputy editor Masha Lipman.
The disappearance of Sevodnya and Itogi following the change in management at NTV will alter the news landscape in a country still struggling with the concept of free media. Although Gusinsky in the past used his media holdings to serve his political ends, NTV, Sevodnya and Itogi were considered among the most professionalmedia outlets in Russia. Without them, Putin will face far less scrutiny of the war in Chechnya, official corruption or government deception in cases such as the sinking of the submarine Kursk.
Putin”s press minister, Mikhail Lesin, said yesterday that the government was not involved in the NTV situation. “We do not interfere in the activity of private companies,” he said, according to news agencies.
But the tax police, under a chief just installed by Putin, took aim Monday at TNT, the small entertainment cable station that has been allowing NTV”s ousted journalists to air their newscasts on its channel since Saturday”s takeover interrupted their final broadcast in mid-sentence.
Police yesterday charged Yelena Metlikina, TNT”s chief accountant, with tax evasion and said they will file similar charges Thursday against its general director, Pavel Korchagin, according to their attorney, Pavel Astakhov. Each faces from four to seven years in prison if convicted.