WASHINGTON — On Russia's popular weekly NTV program "Itogi" ("Summing Up"), at 7 o'clock last Sunday evening, Russians saw not brutalities in Chechnya, not hard-hitting analysis of the Putin government, but a French musical comedy about a dance director.
To see "Itogi," viewers had to know to switch to a much smaller network, where many of NTV's talented staff had taken refuge. Destined for the waste bin was the sparkling NTV show "Kukly," which used puppets to lampoon President Vladimir Putin and company.
It had finally happened - the takeover of the only major Russian network not under Kremlin control. President Putin's friends in Gazprom, the Russian natural gas monopoly, staged a predawn raid on Saturday morning and took control. The network staff, which had been conducting a sit-in on live television, began dispersing.
The new general director of NTV is Boris Jordan, a Russian-American investment banker. Vladimir Gusinsky, the media tycoon who founded NTV, was in Spain, fighting extradition to Russia for alleged financial irregularities.
The next organ in Mr. Gusinsky's Media-Most empire to feel the lash was the liberal newspaper, Sevodnya, abruptly closed Monday night as it was about to go to press. Also on the endangered list was the news magazine Itogi, a co-production with the American Newsweek. Masha Lipman, deputy editor of Itogi magazine, to whom I talked in Moscow, wrote in The Washington Post that the dismantlement of the Gusinsky empire was the final act in a covert operation launched a year ago by KGB alumnus President Putin.
Mr. Putin likes to say the NTV takeover is no big deal, not a freedom of the press issue, just a matter of free enterprise, like General Electric acquiring the NBC network. So he told German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, who met with Putin in St. Petersburg and told him that all of Europe is concerned about freedom of the press in Russia.
Whatever Putin may say, the attack on an independent network is no mere business deal. Ten years since the collapse of Communist rule, Russia has still to show that democratization means more than transferring economic control from government to oligarchs with government connections.
Apparently dead now is the chance that American media tycoon Ted Turner might make a deal with Gusinsky and bring a whiff of fresh air into Russia's media. In the current New Yorker magazine, Mr. Turner is quoted as saying that, having been eased out of a decisionmaking role in the AOL-Time Warner-CNN combine, he hoped to get "my own network" in Russia, where "I'm gonna try and help freedom of the press." With Gazprom in control, that isn't likely.
Europe has reason to be concerned about the fate of press freedom in Russia. And not Europe alone.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. His memoir, 'Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism' (Pocket), will be published in May.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor