It was a small, but open declaration of defiance by some of Russia's most modest publications against a state TV heavyweight known for its street brawler mentality and pro-Kremlin fervor. With backing from its 70-member strong Alliance of Independent Regional Publishers, a half-dozen newspaper editors have begun running similar warnings about NTV and say they're expecting dozens of newspapers across Russia to join the "flashmob" next week.
"First of all this is about standing by our colleagues who have been attacked," said Valery Bezpyatykh, the editor-in-chief of Gorodskie Vesti, a small newspaper published weekly in the Urals town of Revda. "Our readers are like people from all across Russia, and we've gotten feedback that's been both very aggressive [against us] and very supportive,"
The protest is a show of support for Yakutsk Vechernyy, a weekly newspaper from the Arctic city of Yakutsk that was targeted in a muckraking expose aired by NTV in March called "Debtors of the State Department." In the film, NTV alleged that newspapers that had taken loans from foreign banks in the 2000s had been co-opted by the U.S. government. The newspapers said that they never hid the loans and that they were paid back in full long ago.
NTV is something of a clearinghouse for dirt on perceived enemies of the Kremlin, combining the political sensibilities of Pravda with the sensationalism of the New York Post. Numerous reports on NTV have served as bases for criminal cases against opposition politicians.
"We saw the film as a clear violation of journalistic ethics," Bezpyatykh said. "Loans are a normal part of the system around the world, and I would want to remind our colleagues at NTV that they have also received money from Gazprom. So some are allowed to take money and others aren't? It was a bad film. It's not journalism. It was done specially to hurt the image of independent press in Russia."
While Russian media, and in particular television, are closely monitored by the government and sometimes punished for stepping out of line, it hardly makes for a monolithic media landscape. Personal feuds between journalists are common. Late last month, the editor-in-chief of one of Russia's largest dailies called the country's best-known political pundit an "informant and a scoundrel," as well as a provocateur.
"I suggest you avoid meeting me," the editor, Pavel Gusev, wrote to Russian television pundit Dmitry Kiselyov in an open letter. "It's not a threat. I'm not going to beat you, but you won't enjoy my company."
Several newspapers were targeted in the film on NTV, but Yakutsk Vechernyy last month was the first to publish warnings over its television guide.
"I don't consider myself in any way to be part of an opposition," said Igor Khodyrev, the editor of the newspaper Omutninskiye Vesti, which also joined the protest. "We are regional newspapers. We write about regional problems, maybe about social issues, but we don't write about politics at all."
"This is about defending the honor of our colleagues," he added, saying he expected most of the newspapers to begin printing the warnings next week.
NTV responded in kind, issuing a warning on its site that "some regional newspapers are allowing altered and false information on their sites under the guise of TV guides."