In the middle of the night on April 14, 2001, a long-running and high-stakes Russian drama came to an end.
After months of legal wrangling and political maneuvering, the popular and independent NTV television channel was swallowed up by the media holding company of the state-controlled Gazprom natural-gas giant.
Svetlana Sorokina is a leading television journalist who was one of the faces of the original NTV team.
NTV’s popular “Kukly” puppet show poked fun at politicians like President Vladimir Putin.“I was on the air on the old NTV for the last time that Friday evening. It was the program ‘Voice of the People,'” she recalls. “And I should say that during those last days, a sort of quiet had evolved. For a long time everything had been stormy, everything was happening. Then, suddenly, that calm that, I suppose, comes before tsunamis.”
Founded in 1993 by oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, NTV quickly became the talk of the entire country, producing and airing must-see daily news broadcasts like “Segodnya” (Today), political satire programs like “Kukly” (Puppets), and weekend news magazine style shows like “Itogi” (Summary). Slickly produced and always topical, the programs had millions of Russians glued to their sets, following current events with an intensity that seems unimaginable today.
Vivid, Critical Coverage
NTV was the flagship of the Media-Most group, which included the daily newspaper “Segodnya,” the newsweekly “Itogi” (produced together at the time with the U.S.-based “Newsweek”), and the radio station Ekho Moskvy.
It was a powerful and professional company unlike any Russia had seen before or since. It served up vivid and critical on-the-ground coverage of the wars in Chechnya and dozens of explosive investigative reports. Its journalists — Sorokina, Yevgeny Kiselyov, Tatiana Mitkova, Leonid Parfyonov, Pavel Lobkov and many others — became trusted household names.
Svetlana Sorokina: “Then, suddenly, that calm that…comes before tsunamis.”But 1996 was the beginning of the end. The ailing and unpopular President Boris Yeltsin seemed unlikely to win reelection in a tough race against Communist Party head Gennady Zuganov. But Gusinsky and other oligarchs including Boris Berezovsky came to the rescue, using their media assets to relentlessly promote Yeltsin and to block the Communists from returning to power.
In exchange, state-controlled Gazprom bought a 30 percent stake in NTV for an undisclosed sum. Later the same year, the newly reelected Yeltsin signed a decree giving NTV access to one of the country’s four national broadcast frequencies.
By 1999, politics in Russia were changing rapidly. The country had a new prime minister, former KGB operative Vladimir Putin, whom Yeltsin had designated as his chosen successor.
In the autumn of that year, a series of explosions rocked apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities, leaving hundreds dead. NTV broadcast an investigative report saying that the Federal Security Service (FSB) was behind a failed apartment-building bombing in Ryazan. NTV General Manager Igor Malashenko later recalled that then Press Minister Mikhail Lesin told him NTV had “crossed the line” with that broadcast.
From early 2000 until April 14, 2001, Gusinsky and NTV were under constant assault. Gazprom managed to up its NTV stake to 46 percent, which became a controlling stake after a court frozen the voting rights of Media-Most’s 19 percent share. Gusinsky was briefly jailed on fraud charges that were later lifted when he agreed to sell his NTV stake to Gazprom. He was allowed to leave the country, after which he said the agreement had been made under duress and refused to go through with it.
Media tycoon Vladimir GusinskyThe drama lasted for months, during which Putin was largely silent. In January 2001, he met with NTV journalists but denied any involvement in the matter, which he characterized as purely a business dispute.
On April 14, 2001, Gazprom took over the station by force and installed American investor Boris Jordan as general director. Dozens of NTV employees left. Many of them went to the small non-state channel TV-6, which was soon shut down by the government as well. After that, many went to TVS, which suffered a similar fate.
Although Gazprom at the time said it had no interest in owning media properties and pledged to divest itself of them, it still owns NTV and Ekho Moskvy and other media outlets to this day. NTV now is almost entirely an entertainment channel.
Ten years after the NTV takeover, Russia is a changed country. Former Duma Deputy and former Russian Union of Journalists General Director Igor Yakovenko traces these changes back to the destruction of the independent channel.
Igor Yakovenko: “The murder of NTV”“After the takeover of NTV, a very serious degradation of society took place and the trigger for that degradation was the degradation of television,” he says. “The downward tendency — which was thought up, planned, and realized — all that began with the murder of NTV. Because by turning off the light and sound in the country, the Russian authorities could then proceed with the course of destroying free enterprise, liquidating elections, and so on.”
“Just recently, there was an opinion poll about how interested people today are in news and what is happening in the country and abroad. The figures were horrible,” she says. “More than 80 percent of people aren’t interested in anything that happens outside their tiny circle. That is alarming. I think the changes [over the last decade] are obvious. If you look at television ratings, you can see that there are only serials and entertainment programs. There is no demand for anything else — even simple news.”
Vera Krichevskaya was a producer on the old NTV. She is convinced that sooner or later Russia will realize that it needs checks on government such as independent media and independent courts. She is still haunted by the events of 10 years ago.
“I am surprised that after 10 years, the phantom pains have not passed, they haven’t gone away. I think I will carry them until I die,” she says. “What happened then is probably the sharpest, most powerful pain that I have ever felt in my life.”
written by Robert Coalson in Prague, based on the reporting of RFE/RL’s Russian Service