NTV journalists promptly declared the move "illegal,"
part of a sinister Kremlin plan to shut down the only TV
network that had been critical of Russian policy in Chechnya.
"Barricaded journalists resist a hostile takeover by
forces allied with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin," shrieks
the New Republic, a magazine notorious for firing
editors insufficiently slavish in their devotion to Al Gore.
"The fate of NTV, the only Russian national television
network free of Kremlin control, hangs in the balance,"
intones the Financial Times pompously. "With
it hang hopes for genuine media freedom in Russia. For if
NTV fails to retain its independence, other press organizations
will also suffer. And Russia’s weak democracy will be all
the weaker." According to Time, "People
close to the Kremlin have all but admitted…that their move
on NTV is politically motivated. They’ve justified this
on the basis that they see NTV as a rival political party
rather than simply a news outlet."
US Government has been making daily statements expressing
anguish at the plight of NTV. According to State Department
spokesman Richard Boucher, freedom of expression is in grave
jeopardy in Russia because of "political pressure and
intimidation tactics." NTV, he claims, "played
an important role in the development of political and media
pluralism in Russia…It is important that the NTV editorial
staff continue to exercise full control over news and information
programming." Based on no evidence whatsoever, the
US Government is accusing the Kremlin of suppressing free
speech. "We’ve seen actions that have led many reasonable
observers to conclude that the campaign against Media-Most
is politically motivated, given the media company’s often
outspoken criticism of the Russian government’s policies,"
Boucher declares. "The United States expresses its
deep disappointment with setbacks suffered recently by independent
media in Russia." Boucher is also worried about what
rampant capitalism is doing to Russia: "We’ve been
concerned about the lack of open and transparent process
in terms of the shares and the controlling ownership issues,
as well as the overall issue of freedom of speech and freedom
of the media in Russia…So we’re watching this very carefully."
has really happened at NTV? A company that has been losing
money for years has been taken over by a giant corporation.
The corporation’s first act was to fire a management it
deemed incompetent. It is the sort of thing that happens
in the United States every day. Only when it happens in
Russia is free speech suddenly in jeopardy. Had this been
a US corporation taking over an "anti-establishment"
media outlet in the United States business journalists would
have been knocking out drooling stories about the brilliant
Gazprom tycoon who masterminded a sensational coup. There
would be rhapsodies about the total worth of the new company.
There would, of course, be little mention of workers being
laid off. Or of news coverage news coverage giving way to
the usual mélange of celebrity-puffing, soap reruns
and sport. The only issue of any significance would be how
much richer the shareholders have become. But let shareholders
assert themselves in Russia and it’s as if Stalin is back
in the Kremlin.
Gazprom came to acquire NTV is an intricate story. Gazprom
had been trying to collect debts from Vladimir Gusinsky’s
Media-Most holding company. In 1996 Gusinsky was one of
a number of powerful tycoons surrounding Boris Yeltsin who
were terrified that their man was about to go down to defeat.
Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky teamed up to ensure Yeltsin’s
victory by using their media outlets to deny his opponents
any coverage at all except for the most unfair and hostile.
was quickly rewarded for his labors. Gazprom was encouraged
to invest $1 billion in Media-Most. The investments came
in several tranches: Gazprom purchased 30 percent of Media-Most’s
NTV subsidiary Russia’s third largest national television
network for $130 million. It then bought 14 percent
of Media-Most for $260 million. It also guaranteed two loans,
for $211 million and $262 million. Gradually Gazprom came
to own 46 percent of NTV.
With Media-Most unable to repay the two loans, Gazprom Media
set out to take over Media-Most’s shares to cover its losses.
This is standard capitalist practice of course. It is how
companies take over other companies. According to Alfred
Kokh, General Director of Gazprom, it was only when Media-Most
was unable to meet its obligations that "Gazprom Media
took action to protect its investment in the firm, now valued
at only $200 to $300 million." A Russian court ruled
recently that Gusinsky could not vote the 19 percent stake
in Media-Most that Gazprom was trying to seize. Gusinsky
had used the shares as collateral for the loans.
US coverage of these murky financial transactions has been
the usual combination of tendentiousness and hysteria. Whenever
the US media focus on another country, it is essential that
it be contrasted unfavorably not with the reality of the
United States but the fantasy. Much of the media commentary
focuses on the state stake in Gazprom. Government participation
in any media enterprise precludes it from being free. Evidently
government participation in the presentation of news is
unheard of in the West. Most countries in the world have
at least one television network, usually more, that is state-owned.
Even in the super-capitalist United States, there is such
a phenomenon as PBS. Yet the New York Times and the
Washington Post who are much exercised about the
fate of NTV are usually calling for increasing the level
of US Government funding of PBS.
Safire can always be counted on to whip himself into lather
about the least significant events in Russia. A janitor
is fired somewhere? That means a new Yezhovchina has started.
Last June he started a column in his usual self-aggrandizing
ingratiating style: "I had breakfast recently with
the deputy chief of Media-Most, the last major Russian TV-and-newspaper
company to dare criticize or satirize the men who have ‘democratically’
seized power in the Kremlin." Safire’s breakfast companion
was Igor Malashenko, who had formerly worked as a propagandist
for the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the
Soviet Union. But then no one has ever accused Safire of
being a man of principle. "[A]fter a decade of blessed
free speech in Russia, repressive days are here again,"
follows the standard practice of the US Government of calling
an election whose outcome displeases him a "coup."
Thus he invariably refers to Valdimir Putin’s overwhelming
election victory as a "coup." According to Safire,
Putin turned against Vladimir Gusinsky because his "channel’s
newscasters do not hew to the Kremlin line." Odd. Russian
prosecutors want him extradited from Spain because, they
claim, he overstated his Media-Most holding company’s assets
to win loan guarantees from Gazprom. These charges may or
may not have merit. We do not know. It is extraordinary
though how people who are willing to believe every accusation
of financial chicanery thrown at Slobodan Milosevic (a man
known for the frugality of his lifestyle), refuse to believe
that a wealthy tycoon who got rich through insider deals
in Russia could possibly have engaged in wrongdoing. Gusinky
hardly seems a poster-boy for free speech. Not to worry;
Safire is always ready to turn to a favorite standby: "Best
of all for Putin’s persecution purposes, Gusinsky is a Jew;
unlike Berezovsky and some partners in Oligarchy Inc., he
is not the self-hating, religion-denying kind." How
does Safire know Berezovsky is a "self-hating Jew"?
Probably the same way he knows for sure that the embezzlement
case against Gusinky "is trumped up." Now that
Berezovsky and Putin have had a falling out, doubtless he
is a Jew in good standing again.
New Republic, as usual striving hard to be more repulsive
than any other publication in America, is not content to
pose fraudulently as the champion of press freedom. It has
to engage in its usual racist Slavophobia (last week Sinophobia
got its regular go-around). The Russians, barbarians that
they are, could not care less about freedom: "[A]s
NTV’s enemies set about seizing Russia’s only major independent
TV network, not only are the broader masses not up in arms
but many Russians, if not most, are actually on the government’s
side… One recent poll showed that 52 percent of Russians
believe NTV would work the same or better if it belonged
to the government. Another, released last month, revealed
that 57 percent want to reintroduce censorship." The
New Republic is hardly one to raise the issue of
"censorship." Over the years has been a firm advocate
of the so-called V-chip. "The NTV fight," the
little magazine goes on, "is only Exhibit A of Putin’s
drive to consolidate power. Having cowed parliamentarians
in the Duma into submission, thrown the governors out of
the Federation Council, and silenced the oligarchs who remained
after Gusinsky and Berezovsky were forced out, Putin has
no serious opposition left." One wonders what the New
Republic considers to be "opposition." Is
anyone being jailed for his views? Has any political party
been suppressed? Have the police broken up any peaceful
gathering? Newspapers are being closed down on commercial
grounds, much like everywhere else in the world.
pundits are unswerving in their demands for the rooting
out of corruption in Russia, the elimination of the so-called
oligarchs, the crackdown on the tax cheats, the calling
in of bad loans. Yet when the Russian Government takes action
against a corrupt oligarch who however enjoys the approval
of the US Government, then it is clearly a case of unjust
persecution. The US media quickly fall into line. Oligarchs
who support US foreign policy overnight become brave fighters
for freedom. The US Government had no problems with the
oligarchs so long as their man, Boris Yeltsin, ensured that
Russia remained supine and feeble. A Russia that blindly
supports US foreign policy even when it is directly contrary
to its national interests, as in the case of the bombing
of Yugoslavia, could happily suppress democracy and still
get a clean bill of health from US-funded "human rights"
watchdogs like Freedom House. During the 1996 presidential
election the oligarch-owned media shamelessly promoted the
candidacy of the hapless Yeltsin. Yet USAID, the NED, Human
Rights Watch, any of the innumerable George Soros-funded
organizations did not seem to think the issue merited much
attention. In 1993 Boris Yeltsin sent in the tanks against
the Russian parliament. The US Government applauded. The
Western media could not care less about the murder of elected
representatives. But let Russia challenge US interests,
however mildly and ineffectively, as it has done in the
post-Yeltsin era and suddenly the fate of Russia hangs on
the fate of an obscure newspaper that no one had ever heard
of up until the day-before-yesterday. Western concern about
the fate of democracy in Russia is in inverse proportion
to Russia’s acceptance of United States tutelage.
Safires of this world were cheering on the so-called "privatization"
pursued by Boris Yeltsin so long as it was strengthening
the Yeltsin regime. The media were writing breathless stories
about Russia’s go-go capitalism even as state assets were
being looted. Suddenly it turns out "privatization"
was not about the creation of a free market at all. It was
about the enrichment of a few individuals at the expense
of the hardworking masses. This is shocking news. According
to the ever-apoplectic Safire, "Vladimir Putin was
hand-picked by the band of oligarchs who wanted to maintain
iron control of Russia’s economy."
it’s "iron control of Russia’s economy." One never
ceases to be amazed at the speed with which the pundits
fall into line with current US policy.
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