Viewers of Russia's popular TVS station got a shock last week when the picture suddenly froze during a late-night movie. Adjusting their TV sets didn't help. It turned out that the "pause" button had been pressed - permanently - in the headquarters of Russia's Press Ministry.
The next day the privately owned, politically combative but heavily indebted TVS network was replaced by a state-run sports channel, a decision the ministry said was taken "in the interests of television viewers."
The sudden shutdown of TVS marked the third time that the same group of media professionals, led by journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov, have had the rug pulled out from under them in as many years. Some experts argue that the switching off of TVS (which couldn't pay its bills), together with the takeover of the independent NTV network two years ago and the closure of TV-6 last year, were all just complicated business disputes.
But others see a disturbing pattern of events - including last week's passage through parliament of restrictions on how the press can cover elections - that suggest the Kremlin has quietly but surely straitjacketed Russia's media, and silenced its critics.
"Not a single private TV channel is left at the national level, and a similar process is under way in the regions," says Boris Nemtsov, a parliamentary leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces. "Freedom of the press is gradually being squelched in Russia."
Mr. Kiselyov's team, founders of the independent NTV network a decade ago, had been among Russia's most popular and successful media professionals until President Vladimir Putin came to power more than three years ago. But the owner of NTV, press magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, had made the mistake of supporting Mr. Putin's opponents in the elections. Following Putin's victory, NTV news broadcasts continued to be critical on sensitive subjects, including the war in Chechnya, official corruption, and inner Kremlin politics. In 2001 Mr. Gusinsky, charged with criminal offenses he claimed were trumped up, fled into exile. The NTV network was taken over by its major shareholder, the state-controlled Gazprom.
Fired by Gazprom, Kiselyov and several dozen former NTV workers took refuge at TV-6, a which was station owned by anti-Kremlin businessman Boris Berezovsky but which, unlike NTV, was free of debt and earning good profits. However, Moscow courts supported a minor shareholder, the partly state-owned Lukoil petroleum giant, which had TV-6 shut down on a legal technicality. The law was later annulled by parliament, but the damage was done.
Last year, a group of business leaders agreed to finance TVS, saying they wanted to give a safe and permanent home to the critical journalism, sharp political satire, and high entertainment values characterized by Kiselyov's team. But earlier this year the two main financiers, electricity tycoon Anatoly Chubais and aluminum king Oleg Deripaska, had a falling out and TVS fell on hard financial times.
A key member of the group, news anchor Marianna Maximova, who is one of Russia's best-known TV personalities, says that she's had enough after three years of moving from station to station. "We have been made to understand that we are blacklisted," she says. "Such unbelievable things happen to political journalists in this country that I think I shall have to change my profession."
Many media experts say the Kremlin orchestrated the events from behind the scenes, not only to remove an irritating group of opposition-minded journalists, but also to frame a clear example for all the others. "Everybody understands that what is happening is the introduction of 'managed democracy' in Russia," says Igor Yakovenko, head of Russia's Union of Journalists. The result is "an imitation of freedom of the press rather than the genuine article."
The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, said in a statement, "Many Russian politicians and journalists believe the campaign against TVS is part of a state-orchestrated effort to control citizens' access to information ahead of the December parliamentary elections and the February 2004 presidential elections."
While Putin's soaring popularity appears to put him above challenge in the coming contest, experts say the parliamentary elections remain in doubt. According to the independent Public Opinion Fund, the opposition Communist Party currently leads the pack, with 23 percent of committed voters, followed by the pro-Kremlin Unity Party, with 21 percent.
A set of amendments to Russian electoral law, passed by the State Duma's pro-Kremlin majority and ratified by the appointed upper house last week, would effectively gag all journalists from analysis, opinion pieces, and columns on any aspect of an election campaign. According to the new law, any published or broadcast commentary must be either a stenographic record of what a candidate said or be labeled political advertising.
Courts will have the power to shut any media outlet down after two offenses. "The result of this is that the press can tell the public only what a candidate wants to be told," says Lyudmilla Shevchenko, an expert with the Institute of Press Development, a nongovernmental watchdog. "If a journalist learns something bad about a candidate ... and he tries to tell the public, his newspaper can be shut down."
Some argue the restrictions are necessary to clamp down on journalists selling favorable coverage to the highest bidder. "Elections are the thing that corrupts journalists in this country more than anything else," says Alexei Pankin, editor of Sreda, an independent Moscow weekly newsmagazine. "Many strong media outlets in the region welcome this legislation, because they hope it will cut the flood of dirty money to their competitors."
But adds Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a media monitoring group, "The danger with this law is that it will be used selectively, only against those who are critical of officialdom."