Restoration Watch #11: Putin’s Take-Down of Press Freedom

(Washington, D.C.): While most Americans are preoccupied with the revelation that Communist China is emerging as a grave new threat to this country, its interests and allies, another nasty surprise is brewing in the nation that is the PRC’s real strategic partner — Russia. Under its KGB officer-turned-president, Vladimir Putin, the few democratic institutions that had tenuously been established during the Yeltsin years are being systematically eroded, if not eradicated. For example, political control is once again being concentrated in Moscow; the Duma has ceased to function as a check on presidential authority; the military is being reorganized and retooled under one of Putin’s trusted fellow KGB alumni; and there is no longer any pretense that the rule of law applies.

Putin’s latest victim is the last vestige of press freedom. As Masha Lipman — a courageous Moscow-based journalist — describes in an op.ed. article that appeared in today’s Washington Post, the Kremlin has deliberately and, eventually, successfully, taken-down the only remotely independent mass media news outlet in Russia: the NTV television network.

This step, like those that preceded it, are ominous straws in the wind. A question is in order for those who blithely assured us that it would be at least 10 years before anything like the threat posed by the former Soviet Union could reemerge: Wouldn’t the early years of such a regression look pretty much like what we are seeing afoot in Putin’s Russia today?

Putin’s KGB Way

By Masha Lipman

The Washington Post, 17 April 2001

MOSCOW — The takeover of the formerly independent Russian television network NTV is the final act of a covert operation launched by the Kremlin about a year ago.

From the start it had two goals: to get the country’s only independent nationwide TV channel under the government’s control and to get rid of media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin regarded as an enemy of the state and, for that matter, even as his personal enemy.

The question was how to do it. The democratic changes of the post-Communist decade made it impossible to use force: The government would not impose direct censorship, expropriate property, ban publications or take away broadcasting licenses. It had to hide its real purpose and figure out more sophisticated methods.

Covert operations are what Putin, a former KGB agent, was trained for. In a book of interviews, he expressed admiration for his KGB colleagues who persecuted dissidents in the 1970s. They were more professional than their counterparts of today, he said: They knew how to act so that “ears wouldn’t stick out.”

Apparently these were the guidelines that the Kremlin set for government agents appointed to solve the “NTV problem.” At first they opted for a “criminal” variant. The idea was to use the prosecutor’s office to bring criminal charges against Gusinsky, intimidate him and thus silence his media. The implementation began with a now-notorious raid on Gusinsky’s media office building by masked, gun-toting men who burst in under the pretext of a search.

Gusinsky and his people were accused of various crimes, but no convincing evidence was ever presented, and the cases fell apart in short order. In the months that followed the first raid, affiliate offices of Gusinsky’s corporation were raided and searched dozens of times, proceedings were opened and closed, Gusinsky’s employees were interrogated and their apartments were searched. One of them is still in jail.

Gusinsky himself was arrested, then released. He left the country, and so did three of his close associates, fearing arrest. But the “problem” was still not solved. NTV continued to operate, and its coverage was as critical of the government as ever. Moreover, ears were sticking out, painfully: Prosecutors were largely regarded not as proponents of justice but as a tool the Kremlin used in the president’s struggle against the media tycoon. Abroad, Putin’s government was accused of cracking down on freedom of speech.

When the prosecutors failed, the “criminal” method was abandoned in favor of a “business dispute.” Taking advantage of the debt owed by Gusinsky’s Media-MOST corporation to the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom, the government appointed Gazprom to destroy the media firm. Another few months went by in intricate corporate litigation. This phase was more effective. The story grew so complex that the public lost interest.

But it was taking too long; Putin was losing patience, and his agents began to cut corners. In a series of preposterously manipulated court decisions, they took over NTV and appointed new leadership. Again ears were really sticking out. Almost half the Russian public began to see the anti-NTV campaign as a violation of freedom of speech. Public rallies of a kind unseen here since 1993 assembled for two consecutive weeks.

Seeing this “corporate dispute” end much as the “anti-crime raids” did earlier — in a big scandal and a lot of negative publicity for the president — his aides finally decided to do what they had long tried to avoid: They took NTV by force. It was done at night, to minimize the ears-sticking-out factor. To be on the safe side, Putin left Moscow on the day of the takeover — apparently expecting that the wave of indignation would subside the day after and he once again could pretend that the NTV conflict had nothing to do with him, the government or freedom of speech, which he ardently advocates.

Those who want to know what’s going on are hardly fooled by the Kremlin’s covert operation. The ears will almost always be seen sticking out in an operation such as this. It’s just that sometimes people are too scared or too indifferent to talk about it.

When the Communist regime struggled against dissidents in the ’70s, the Soviet people were scared. In today’s Russia they are mostly indifferent. Already Putin’s government is extending its campaign, bringing tax evasion charges against the cable TV channel that harbored the rebellious NTV journalists. But with a popularity rating of about 70 percent, almost all political elites rallying behind him, and more than half of his nation in favor of bringing back censorship, Putin will easily get away with further crackdowns on freedom if he needs them.

The writer is deputy editor of Itogi magazine, owned by Media-MOST.

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