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5 Years On, Hundreds Mourn NTV Takeover

On the fifth anniversary of Gazprom's takeover of NTV television, some 1,500 protesters and several prominent former NTV journalists rallied Sunday on Pushkin Square to demand greater media freedom and a television free of Kremlin control.

The protesters -- many of them pensioners who pledged to listen only to independent Ekho Moskvy radio -- gathered at 1 p.m., waving Russian flags, wearing "I'm free" pins, and holding posters reading, "Kremlin, get away from TV," or "Take the remote control away from Putin."

Many also wore T-shirts and pins calling for the release of jailed Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky and chanted "Censorship today, dictatorship tomorrow." Behind a Channel One cameraman, protesters held a poster reading, "Channel One, stop lying."

A handful of former NTV journalists made speeches from a stage, but few other journalists offered their support.

Viktor Shenderovich, who is best known as the main screenwriter for the axed "Kukly" political satirical television show, lashed out at the state of the media.

"You could watch me on three TV channels. Now you can only listen to me on two radio stations," Shenderovich said to the applause of the crowd. "What happened five years ago was only the start of a leadership that has proved incapable to rule a democratic country."

Shenderovich has shows on Ekho Moskvy and Radio Liberty.

Gazprom, the state-controlled gas giant, took over NTV on April 14, 2001, in what it said was an attempt to recoup multimillion-dollar debts owed by the channel's parent company, Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-MOST. Gusinsky and media freedom champions denounced the takeover as Kremlin-orchestrated and said it was motivated by NTV's critical coverage of the Kremlin and the war in Chechnya.

Journalists left NTV en masse.

Gazprom ended up taking over all of Media-MOST's assets, including daily newspaper Segodnya, magazine Itogi, cable operator NTV-Plus and Ekho Moskvy. It closed Segodnya but has left Ekho Moskvy's editorial policy in the hands of the editors, who also own a stake in the station.

Since the takeover, NTV's news coverage has inched closer to that of Channel One and Rossia, the two main state-run channels.

Several hundred people rallied in April 2001 to protest the takeover of NTV, which was the only nationally broadcast channel not controlled by the state.

"We can only return to television when you want us back, when you take to the streets to call us back," said Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Radio Liberty talk show host who worked at NTV.

"Freedom for Khodorkovsky," Kara-Murza told the crowd, which started chanting "Freedom, freedom."

"Yes, let Khodorkovsky go free," screamed Lyudmila, a 67-year-old pensioner who was wearing a pin with his name. "I'm so worried about him. I think authorities want to destroy him." She refused to give her last name.

Two demonstrators took the stage holding pictures of wisecracking pig Khryun and worrywart rabbit Stepan in front of their faces. The characters are from a popular satire program on NTV.

Stepan told journalists "to be brave" and to fight for their rights, while Khryun suggested they do so quickly.

"Ekho Moskvy can't take anymore," he said, referring to the many television journalists who have gone to the station.

Sergei Dorenko, a former anchor on TV-6 and ORT, now Channel One, said there used to be rivalry between the channels. "Yes, I know it was a fight among clans, but at least you could choose," said Dorenko, who hosts a morning talk show on Ekho Moskvy.

Among the other journalists who spoke were former NTV head Yevgeny Kiselyov, former Itogi editor Sergei Parkomenko and Olga Romanova, a former Ren-TV newscaster who complained in November that her show had been pulled off the air due to reports that might irritate Kremlin officials. They all now host programs on Ekho Moskvy.

Radio Liberty journalist Yelena Rykovtseva expressed disappointment that more people would not learn about Sunday's rally, noting that the participants did not need to be educated about media freedom.

"They listen to Ekho Moskvy and Radio Liberty, and they are well-informed people. Those who really need press freedom are not here because they didn't know that this demonstration was taking place," Rykovtseva said.

She said people had forgotten what independent television news was during the past five years and that they had grown so accustomed to state-controlled television that "they do not even notice the lack of press freedom."

The national television channels tend to provide positive coverage of Kremlin policies, and all but ignore human rights abuses in Chechnya and elsewhere.

Outspoken journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who covers Chechnya for Novaya Gazeta, expressed doubt that things would change.

"I understand that when you get a chance to publish your story you have to take it, but it is so difficult to get stories about Chechnya published in Russia," she said.

Journalists from the major media organizations mostly ignored the rally.

"I was surprised to see so few of them," said Anna Kachkayeva, a media analyst with Radio Liberty.

"Russian journalists don't believe that taking part in the rally can help solve the problem of press freedom. They are disillusioned," she said.

Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a free speech watchdog, said today's television could be compared to the so-called period of stagnation in the 1960s.

"We need glasnost," he said.

(The Moscow Times 17.iv.06)

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