The Kremlin loyalist appointed this week to run Russia's NTV television network decided to cancel the talk show "Freedom of Speech" in his first full day on the job, a move that would effectively leave the Russian airwaves without a single independent-minded political program.
On Monday, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom, which took over NTV in 2001, fired the network's general director and replaced him with Vladimir Kulistikov, head of news programming at the state-run Rossiya channel, known for fawning nightly news coverage of President Vladimir Putin.
On Tuesday, Kulistikov met with "Freedom of Speech" host Savik Shuster and told him that the show would be canceled, according to several sources close to Shuster who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Shuster was told that his last show would probably be on Friday and was offered an off-air post as deputy general director in charge of documentaries, the sources said. Reached Wednesday night, Shuster said, "I'm considering their proposal."
The apparent demise of "Freedom of Speech" would bring to a conclusion what media analysts have called a long government effort to silence critical voices on the once-outspoken network. When Gazprom took over NTV, many of the network's journalists left to protest Kremlin interference.
Shuster, former Moscow bureau chief for U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, chose to start "Freedom of Speech" -- "Svoboda Slova" in Russian -- on NTV anyway, hosting live debates on political topics after the evening news. He clashed with management several times, and last year he was briefly ordered to tape his shows, rather than broadcast live.
"The process of liquidation of nongovernment TV channels that started several years ago has reached its conclusion. The liquidation of 'Freedom of Speech' is the end of this process, full stop," said Igor Yakovenko, head of the Union of Journalists. "The TV screen looks the same now as in the 1970s, except instead of a party general secretary, we have a president."
One month ago, NTV fired its top-rated news anchor, Leonid Parfyonov, and canceled his popular Sunday evening news magazine show, "Namedni," after a dispute in which Parfyonov accused the network of bowing to Kremlin pressure and censoring an item on his program. At the time, Shuster said in an interview that Parfyonov had performed a useful service as a "whistleblower," exposing the Kremlin's heavy-handedness, and that he hoped that, "at least for a short period," his own program might stay on the air.
But Shuster's remaining time to debate issues of the day -- with a studio audience able to speak freely and guests who dared to talk about mostly forbidden subjects such as the war in Chechnya -- turned out to be short.
"In Russia they have now closed the last political talk show that was live on the air," Parfyonov said Wednesday after speaking with Shuster.
"Russia's becoming a very closed society with very little space for public politics," said one of the sources close to Shuster. "They want to have instruments of influence on TV; they don't want to have anything which influences public opinion in an open way."
Kulistikov headed the NTV news department in the 1990s, when NTV was founded as Russia's first independent network. But he left it for state-run news agencies after Putin came to power and seemed to change his philosophy while at the Rossiya channel. "If I were not loyal to Mr. Putin, I would not work here," Kulistikov told the New York Times this winter.
In a statement released by NTV late Wednesday, Kulistikov said that "no final decisions have been made" on canceling any programs and he did not comment specifically on the fate of "Freedom of Speech."