Russia's Free Media Losing Their Voice


It was the first independent voice to hit Russia's airwaves. These days, it is the last, small jewel still dangling from the wrecked crown of what was once Russia's largest independent media company.

Echo of Moscow went on the air Aug. 22, 1990. In the nearly 11 years since, it has become the country's premier independent news radio station.

But perhaps not for long. In recent weeks, Echo of Moscow has all but lost a court battle to gain a controlling stake in its own shares, which a Moscow court has awarded to the state gas monopoly Gazprom. Three of the station's 11 newscasters resigned in response, saying they will not work for a state-controlled station.

Echo of Moscow's editor in chief, Alexei Venediktov, has vowed to quit as well if appeals fail in the courts and Gazprom takes over. He portrays his fight as the final battle in the war for freedom of speech in Russia.

"People are watching to see if we'll survive," Venediktov said Thursday. "Most don't think we will."

In Russia's media wars, Echo of Moscow is in many ways a small fry: a radio station based in one city valued at only about $8 million.

But because of its history and reputation for accuracy, the station has a stature far beyond the reach of its call signal. Politicians clamor to be interviewed. Visiting heads of state--including President Clinton last year--make sure to work it into their itineraries.

The station, started by journalists from Moscow State University, was acquired in 1994 by Vladimir A. Gusinsky--the tycoon behind Media-Most, formerly the country's largest group of independent broadcasters, newspapers and magazines.

Over the last year, Gazprom slowly wrested that empire--including its flagship NTV television network--from Gusinsky's hands. Many Media-Most journalists, including most of the marquee names from NTV and well-known editors of Itogi magazine and Sevodnya newspaper, have quit or been fired.

NTV continues to broadcast; some say it has lost its verve, but others note that it still makes an effort to present stories critical of the Kremlin. Echo of Moscow is the only former Gusinsky property operating under its original management.

Journalists who opposed Gazprom's takeover accuse the chairman of its media arm, Alfred Kokh, of waging a war against independent broadcasters and publications because the Kremlin doesn't like "disloyal" reporting. But Kokh insists that the takeover was pure business: Gusinsky owed Gazprom money, and Gazprom collected.

Venediktov said he has offered repeatedly to buy out Gazprom's 52% stake in Echo of Moscow but Kokh has refused. "They won't take [our money]," Venediktov said. "They said, 'We prefer control.' That's not business."

Few observers in Russia believe that Gazprom would have targeted Gusinsky without at least tacit approval from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. In an interview with U.S. journalists last month, Putin in effect acknowledged that he had approved. What threatens freedom of speech in Russia is not state control, the president said, but business "clans" that seek to "blackmail the authorities."

"The best lever of influence over the authorities, I would even say it is a lever for blackmailing the authorities . . . is, of course, the mass media," Putin said. "That is why I am profoundly convinced that society cannot be normal, it cannot be democratic, without free mass media. They must serve society rather than serving the interests of specific groups."

The latest skirmish in the battle over Echo of Moscow was fought this week not over shares but over a conference: Freedom of Speech 2001, co-sponsored by the station and Gazprom and moderated by liberal politician Boris Y. Nemtsov. Called by Nemtsov, the conference was supposed to give a platform to all sides of the debate over media freedom.

But the conference, which was scheduled to open today, fell through this week after a number of organizations pulled out. The Russian Union of Journalists said it would not discuss freedom of speech "with the people who use such discussions only to cover their everyday hard work to suppress this freedom."

Echo of Moscow, which was using the conference as a bargaining chip to persuade Gazprom to relinquish some of its shares, pulled out Monday after the deal fell through.

Venediktov accused Nemtsov of acting on behalf of the Kremlin, calling off the conference just before a gathering of the Group of 8 industrial nations in Genoa next week in an effort to diffuse potential criticism of Putin.

"Putin is actually very sensitive to what the West says to him," Venediktov said. "He wants to remain a member of the 'greats.' "

Putin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov expressed regret that the conference fell through, but he insisted that it had nothing to do with the summit.

"The conference promised to be interesting, and we feel sorry that this interesting event never happened," he said. "But it would be wrong to immediately look for a fundamental, conceptual explanation of why it did not happen. Maybe the sponsors simply could not raise enough money?"

In coming weeks, Echo of Moscow is expected to continue to ask the courts to grant it control over several disputed packages of shares. But its chances of success are slim. Talks on setting up some kind of impartial trust to hold the shares have fallen through several times.

"The toughest question for us is when we should leave," Venediktov said. "Some people think we should close up shop today. But I think the issue is essentially political, and that means maybe it will be decided by politics."

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