Russian President Vladimir Putin says that the takeover of NTV, the only independent television station in the country, is “a matter of the fundamental principles of the market economy.” That is a convenient approach when the key shareholder in NTV is Gazprom, the former state company that is headed by a Putin aide. The takeover threatens to silence the only independent media voice in Russia. Russia would be better off if Mr. Putin had as much respect for free and independent media as he does for the workings of the market.
NTV has been a thorn in the Russian government’s side since it was founded in the early 1990s. It crusaded against the war in Chechnya, battled corruption and served as an independent voice throughout its existence. Those efforts infuriated the government, but they also won the station a loyal public following.
To silence NTV, the government targeted Mr. Vladimir Gusinsky, the financier behind the station. Mr. Gusinsky is one of Russia’s “oligarchs,” a handful of men who profited from the sale of state assets a decade ago. The entire privatization process was shady, but the government has targeted only Mr. Gusinsky. He was taken into custody for questioning last year and later fled to Spain to avoid what he calls persecution.
In his absence, Gazprom orchestrated the takeover of NTV earlier this month. Arguing that the station’s $127 million debt would not be repaid, it replaced existing management while promising to respect the station’s independence. Station staff have fought the takeover; tens of thousands of Russians have rallied in support of NTV. The move has also been condemned by the foreign press and by other governments.
When German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pressed Mr. Putin last weekend to support freedom of the press, the Russian president averred that the NTV dispute was a business matter, adding that “property rights must be sacred.” It is a good answer, but the timing of the president’s conversion to free-market orthodoxy is suspect. The silencing of NTV will speak far louder than Mr. Putin.
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