The most influential host on Russian television was fired in a dispute over censorship of his popular Sunday-night political news program, resurrecting concerns about state control of the media under President Vladimir Putin.
Leonid Parfyonov had long been seen as one of the last independent voices on a major Russian network, and his dismissal late Tuesday night by NTV was criticized by journalists and opposition figures. It is "another landmark in the destruction of freedom of speech in Russia," said Igor Yakovenko, head of the Union of Russian Journalists.
In a telephone interview, Parfyonov said his ouster was an act of censorship "coordinated with somebody in the Kremlin." The longtime TV personality said the decision showed "there's no way we can talk about any form of independence" in news programs on Russian television.
Under Putin, the state has taken over or shut down independent broadcasters and now controls all three national networks. Television news broadcasts -- the only source of political information for most of Russia's far-flung population -- often lead with whatever Putin did that day in an echo of Soviet-era coverage. They almost never include such sensitive topics as the war in Chechnya.
Parfyonov's network, NTV, was taken over by the state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom in 2001. He chose to continue working there when many other journalists quit rather than stay at a station that had lost its independence. But Parfyonov promised not to tolerate official interference in his broadcasts and had repeatedly clashed with NTV's management in the last few years.
The incident that led to his firing involved Sunday's broadcast of his weekly magazine-style program "Namedni." Parfyonov planned to air a teary interview with the widow of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a Chechen separatist leader who was assassinated in February in Qatar. Two Russian agents are on trial there, charged with his murder.
But the interview was yanked by NTV management after it had already aired in parts of Russia. Parfyonov complained to reporters of censorship, saying NTV had been told by the Russian intelligence services not to broadcast information about the trial before a verdict was reached in the Qatar court.
Then late Tuesday, NTV's president, Nikolai Senkevich, fired Parfyonov and canceled his show. In a statement, he said the TV host had taken the dispute public in violation of his contract obliging him to support management's policies. "Leonid Parfyonov is certainly one of the most talented journalists on contemporary Russian television," Senkevich said. "However, this was not the first incident."
The Kremlin refused to comment.
"I did try to work under this management," Parfyonov said. "I tried to use any possibilities to work, but I can't betray the principles of the trade. How am I supposed to make believe it was my decision to take this off the air? I can't take this shame. I'm obliged to tell the public what happened."
Some of Parfyonov's fellow journalists and free-speech advocates said Wednesday his firing was the inevitable result of his decision to work at a network that is no longer independent.
"Mr. Parfyonov finally realized what happened in 2001 when his colleagues were kicked out of NTV because of politics," said Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of the influential Echo Moskvy radio station. Venediktov has provided jobs for several other journalists ousted in state takeovers but said he would not offer one to Parfyonov because he had not "found the guts to keep the story on his show . . . or found the guts to quit himself."
Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a free-speech group, called the firing "the logical continuation of what they've been doing on television for the last few years." Simonov said Parfyonov and another NTV talk show host, Savik Shuster, had been the only "two exceptions" allowed on national television, "but now this stage is finished."
Shuster, host of the NTV talk show "Freedom of Speech," called Parfyonov's ouster "an enormous loss for the channel." But, he said, Parfyonov served as a "whistleblower" in a way that might help. "Now -- at least for a short period -- I don't think anyone will threaten my program," Shuster said.
Sunday's clash was not the first time Parfyonov accused his network of censoring him. Last fall, NTV yanked a report he did on a tell-all memoir by a former member of the secretive Kremlin press pool who alleged that Putin aides controlled press coverage down to the smallest detail.
During the 2002 Moscow theater siege, when Chechen rebels took more than 800 theatergoers hostage, Parfyonov reportedly infuriated the Kremlin by commissioning a lip reader to find out what Putin had said during a photo opportunity.
Parfyonov temporarily stopped broadcasting his program in February 2003 in protest of NTV's new management, telling viewers it "paves the way for the destruction of the station, and I don't want to participate in it." He returned to the air three months later.