-- A state-controlled energy company staged a dramatic pre-dawn takeover of Russia's sole major independent television network today, dispatching security forces to seize NTV headquarters from protesting journalists and cutting off their final broadcast in mid-sentence.
Denouncing the move as a Kremlin-sponsored attack on free speech, scores of correspondents quit en masse and marched across the street to a small affiliated cable channel where they preempted cartoon shows and wrestling matches to air a rump broadcast to a much smaller audience. The new NTV management countered with its own version of the news, leading to an extraordinary day of dueling broadcasts.
Critics called the seizure by the natural gas monopoly Gazprom the culmination of a year-long campaign to silence the one network that has aired critical reports about Russian President Vladimir Putin. "This is a forceful takeover," said reformist parliamentary leader Grigory Yavlinsky, who went to the Ostankino broadcasting center early this morning. Igor Malashenko, one of the ousted NTV board members, called it a "creeping coup d'etat."
The takeover of NTV headquarters came after an 11-day standoff in which journalists refused to accept Gazprom management, and the seizure marks the end of the only American-style television news organization created outside Kremlin control in post-Communist Russia. The country's other two main national channels still report to the government as they did during Soviet days and now NTV will be run by a giant gas firm partially owned by the state and headed by Putin's deputy chief of staff.
The NTV dispute has been watched closely in the West as a test of Putin's commitment to preserving the democratic freedoms won after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. But while Putin has insisted he supports free media, he has refused to instruct his subordinates to back off NTV, characterizing the situation as simply a business dispute.
Today's seizure could unravel efforts by CNN founder Ted Turner to buy into NTV and preserve its independence. Turner representatives had warned Gazprom against steps that would tear apart the operation. "We're very disappointed with what's happened," Turner spokesman Brian Faw said.
Assuming the Turner deal falls through, the dissident NTV journalists began making plans to create a new national network free of government control.
Gazprom, which owns 46 percent of NTV stock, voted in new management at a disputed April 3 shareholders meeting, but journalists barricaded themselves at network headquarters and protested on the air. Rather than wait for the results of lawsuits, Gazprom decided to take action on Easter weekend when many Muscovites were at their country homes and not watching television. Among those away was Yevgeny Kiselyov, the ousted NTV general director who had flown to Spain to consult with exiled network founder Vladimir Gusinsky, who is fighting a Russian extradition request. Kiselyov immediately flew back to Moscow and began organizing his troops.
"NTV was our home," he said upon returning. "We created this home, we built it together and protected it. This home is now destroyed. It was destroyed by mean and cynical people who have neither shame nor conscience." But, he said, "I am ready to build a new home. And I will be asking those who left NTV to support me."
Boris Jordan, the Russian American banker tapped by Gazprom to take Kiselyov's place as general director, maintained that the takeover was not orchestrated by the government and resulted simply because NTV was being financially mismanaged. "There is nothing to do with freedom of speech here," he said in an interview in NTV offices. "You will now see true freedom of speech, true reporting."
Yet even one of Putin's chief parliamentary allies cast the decision in terms of the government cracking down on an uncontrolled media outlet. "The state has the right to take decisions that ensure order in the country and at the television," said Franz Klintsevich, deputy leader of the Kremlin-created Unity party. "The period of unbridledness, self-indulgence and offhandedness is coming to an end."
Today's takeover came just hours after Jordan reiterated that he had no intention of entering the headquarters by force. But around 3:30 a.m., a new security force hired by Jordan arrived at NTV offices on his instructions, ordered the station's security guards to leave, and for a time barred access to reporters who were not on a list and told them they would be fired. Within hours, Jordan and Vladimir Kulistikov, the former state news agency head appointed as NTV's new editor in chief, arrived and held an emotional meeting with the staff.
Scores of correspondents, photographers and engineers resigned in protest, removed framed pictures of themselves from the network corridors and marched across the street to TNT, a cable station also founded by Gusinsky.
By 8 a.m., they were on the air with a news broadcast, using both TNT and the NTV signal, which they had rerouted. Anchor Andrei Norkin was six minutes into his report before the new management yanked him off the NTV channel, which briefly went off the air.
"I have my concepts of morality," Norkin said in an interview, explaining why he quit. Evoking the demons of Russia's past, fellow anchor Marianna Maximovskaya recalled that her relatives were taken away to Stalin's camps in the middle of the night. "Now they've come to get me," she said. "It's history repeating itself."
A number of journalists, however, decided to stay at NTV, and by 10 a.m., they were back on the air with a skeletal newscast.
In the empty corridors of NTV, emotions were running high among those who remained. After finishing the 4 p.m. newscast, anchor Olga Belova retreated to the side of the newsroom and began crying. "It's very tough for everybody," she said later.
Jordan, settling into the eighth-floor executive offices, said he decided to send in security forces after hearing that Kiselyov's team intended to transfer the NTV signal to TNT and sell the rights to the popular Sunday evening news program "Itogi." He said he acted to protect NTV assets from being stripped and moved in the middle of the night to avoid disruption.
"There was no forced entry," he insisted. "It was a completely civilized, completely legal transfer of power."
Putin said nothing about the takeover today as he made an unannounced visit to the breakaway region of Chechnya, where Russian troops have been fighting a war that had been regularly criticized on NTV programs. He was accompanied by Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, whose office the day before had threatened to prosecute NTV for supporting terrorism by broadcasting an interview with a Chechen rebel leader.
Jordan, who promised to run "an absolutely open, American-style" newscast, suggested he would not have run that interview because it might have violated a Russian law that forbids giving airtime to terrorists.
Kiselyov and the ousted journalists spent much of the day improvising, going out and buying blank cassettes because they had none of their own equipment. TNT reaches just half of Russia's population, mostly with entertainment programming, and only through local affiliates that can choose whether to take the feed from Moscow.
Kiselyov and Gusinsky have been negotiating with Boris Berezovsky, another business mogul who has fled the country under pressure from Putin's government, to merge operations with TV-6, a small Moscow channel. TV-6 offered to make Kiselyov general director, and after a meeting with his rebel staff, agreed late tonight to accept "with gratitude."