Opposition fury over NTV documentary

Opposition activists have sued Russian television station NTV after the channel aired the documentary “Anatomy of Protest”, which claimed people were paid to participate in recent mass protest rallies.

Eleven years ago thousands of people gathered in Moscow in support of Russian private NTV channel, protesting against state-owned Gazprom’s subsidiary — Gazprom Media Holding — buying it from media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. He had faced pressure from Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin to sell NTV (as well as “Echo of Moscow” radio station). That rally didn’t influence the transaction; NTV was passed into the hands of Gazprom-Media, which later fell under control of Yury Kovalchuk who is considered a close friend of Putin.

Eleven years have passed and Vladimir Putin has returned to power, ignoring mass protests against his third presidential run. Now NTV is the focus of another rally. This time some 300 people gathered near Ostankino TV tower on Sunday, protesting against NTV policy and particularly the documentary, which was aired twice last week suggesting people received money and cookies for protesting against Vladimir Putin.

Many of the protesters held placards reading “NTV lies”, flowers and old broken televisions “to mark NTV’s funeral as mass media”. Dozens of people were arrested, including opposition leaders Sergey Udaltsov and Boris Nemtsov. All were released by the following morning.

The arrests angered many, with complaints on NTV’s Facebook page, and “NTV Lies” hashtag trending on Twitter.

The Democratic Choice opposition movement has filed two lawsuits against NTV. One is for libel — the movement is demanding NTV withdraw statements in the documentary about opposition leaders hiring people to attend rallies and aiming to arrange provocations and bloody revolution in Russia.

The other lawsuit relates to Democratic Choice authors’ rights — the documentary included a video showing citizens of Kenya attending a rally in support of Vladimir Putin, who didn’t seem to understand the Russian language and could not explain at all why they supported Putin.

“Democratic Choice” activists claim the video was shot by them to show that Putin’s assessments of how many people actually supported him on rallies were controversial. The NTV documentary claimed that the Kenyans interviewed might have been hired by opposition activists.

A libel lawsuit against NTV was filed by politician Boris Nadezhdin, and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has called for a  boycott of all NTV programmes. Bloggers have called on advertisers including Proсter & Gamble to pull the plug on the company. The company responded, saying it respects freedom of expression, but prefers to stay out of politics and doesn’t see itself as a party in this conflict.

Expert magazine editor-in-chief Valery Fadeev, who appeared in the NTV documentary, said his words were taken out of context. He added that not only his magazine, but the whole Expert publishing house is ending any cooperation with NTV.

Gazprom Media Holding denied the allegations, issuing a statement from the group head Nikolay Senkevich.

Senkevich said that NTV “covers each aspect of social life” and that calls to boycott the channel go against democratic principles. Andrey Isaev of Putin’s United Russia party called the opposition reaction to the documentary “hysterical”.

Russia’s journalists are divided by the controversial documentary. To some, working on NTV is still seen as a normal journalistic activity, as far as it doesn’t concern making Kremlin propaganda movies about Russian opposition. To others, it is no longer acceptable.

Leading independent radio station faces pressure after Putin criticism

Ekho Moskvy is Russia’s most popular talk radio station, with 900,000 listeners daily. Since its creation in 1990 it has delivered information as an independent media which, unlike Russian TV, isn’t subject to censorship. This remained the case even after state-owned Gazprom’s holding — Gazprom-Media — bought out 66 per cent shares of Ekho Moskvy in the early 2000s and later, when Gazprom-Media fell under control of big bank “Russia” board of directors chair Yuri Kovalchuk, considered a close friend of Vladimir Putin.

But this week many observers have expressed concerns over Ekho’s ability to continue to remain independent, after Gazprom-Media demanded pre-term resignation and re-election of the station’s board of directors.
Two independent directors — Evgeny Yasin, research director of National Research University Higher School of Economics, and Alexander Makovsky, deputy head of Public Law Research Centre Council – have been forced to step down from their positions on the board, and the station’s editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov and his deputy Vladimir Varfolomeev — two of three Echo’s representatives in the board — have stepped down voluntarily.

Gazprom Media used to appoint four of nine board of directors members, three were from the station, whilst the other two were independent. Now Gazprom Media will appoint five members, and Ekho Moskvy will only have two representatives, which, according to Venediktov, will “make it easier for Gazprom Media to replace the editor in chief”. The two new independent directors recommended by Gazprom Media are both close to president Dmitry Medvedev.

Ekho Moskvy journalists own 34 per cent of the station’s share. For 10 years they have struggled to buy out the other shares from Gazprom Media, but they have been unsuccessful. Staff have expressed concerns over the demands from Gazprom Media.

In an official statement, the journalists explained that they understood the need to respond to officials who are critics of the station, but added that the hasty advancement of the board of directors meeting needed to be explained.
Ekho Moskvy has been criticised by Putin for its in-depth coverage of events including the Moscow theatre and Beslan school hostage crises and the 2008 South Ossetia war. Last month Putin said the station’s journalists “poured diarrhoea” on him “day and night”.

Alexey Venediktov and Gazprom Media representatives claim the resignations from the board of directors will not affect Ekho Moskvy editorial policy and won’t lead to Venediktov’s removal. They explained he will keep his post for two more years and can then be re-elected in accordance with the station’s charter.

The new Echo representative on the board, the station’s directorYuri Fedutinov said the journalists have never faced any pressure from Gazprom Media.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied allegations of Putin involvement in the change, saying the pre-term board of directors resignation relates to “Gazprom Media corporate agenda”.

But Evgeny Yasin and Alexander Makovsky both say Gazprom Media’s move is to “influence editorial’s policy”.
Yasin told journalists: “This is done to establish government control over independent media to avoid any problems the authorities might have.”

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev has called Gazprom Media’s demand “a slap in the face of public opinion”.

In an interview for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Russian service, he added: “To act that way with an independent, democratic radio station, which is loved and appreciated and to which people listen and [whose] material they read on the Internet is such ignorance.”

On his blog, Yabloko opposition party founder and unregistered presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky called the incident “direct pressure on media”, which may indicate the government’s policy on free media after presidential elections. But the more pressure the authorities apply, the more obvious the shortage of freedom will be, he added, stating that repressions won’t stop the protest movement which arose after allegedly fraudulent parliamentary elections in Russia.

Another two incidents marked the scandal over Gazprom Media and Ekho Moskvy. On 15 February, the day after the scandal began, the Prosecutor’s office in Presnensky’s Moscow district called Alexey Venediktov. Prosecutors referred to an appeal which was filed by a citizen who claimed that the Ekho Moskvy’s charter didn’t correspond to Russia’s Labour Code. The applicant turned out to be from Yabloko party, he expressed concern over Echo’s journalists being forbidden to enter political parties. Yabloko’s superior members promised to exclude the complainant from the party and called his complaint “a provocation”.

In another incident, Ekho Moskvy journalist Alexander Pluschev’s had his blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts hacked. The journalist considers this a response to his post about pro-Putin youth movement “Nashi” where he described how they insulted him and allegedly damaged his car.