The End of Russia's Independent TV?

A former free-press champion defends the government

Sitting in his spacious antique-filled office overlooking Moscow's Pushkin Square, Russian Press Minister Mikhail Y. Lesin seems at the top of his game. As head of Russia's politically charged media industry, he wields the power to grant or deny licenses to TV stations and newspapers and distribute subsidies to state media. It has been a dizzying leap from his days as a student clown and free-press pioneer. In 1989, Lesin directed and starred in the first commercially televised versions of Russia's favorite comedy contest, KVN, which resembles Saturday Night Live. Now he is at the helm of what looks like a Kremlin campaign to abrogate the hard-won media freedoms he once helped create.

Lesin is a key player in the battle for control of NTV, Russia's only independent national-television network--a battle that could reach its climax in early April. The network has irritated Russian President Vladimir V. Putin by failing to endorse him in last year's election, criticizing his record in Chechnya, and making fun of him on the puppet show Kukly.

Last July, Lesin signed off on a "freedom-for-shares" deal for NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky, who was jailed on corruption charges. He was freed only after he signed an agreement to sell his Media-Most empire--the holding company that owns NTV--to state-controlled Gazprom-Media, a division of the giant energy company that already owns a stake in NTV. A copy of the agreement that was signed by Lesin and released to the press by Media-Most revealed that Lesin guaranteed charges would be dropped against Gusinsky if he agreed to the sale. Gusinsky later rejected the agreement, saying he had been forced to sign it under duress.

Lesin admits to signing the agreement, but says he did it at Gusinsky's request: "This was my personal attempt to save NTV as an independent network." Lesin sees Gazprom-Media's efforts to take control of the channel purely as a fight over debts NTV owes Gazprom. "This is about protecting property rights, not usurping press freedoms," he says. Media-Most executives counter that state-controlled Gazprom is a proxy for the government. They fear the end of NTV's editorial freedom if Gazprom gains control of the board. "All the independent journalists will be fired," frets Yevgeny Kiselyov, general director of NTV.

Critics say Lesin may have a personal reason for pushing NTV into the hands of Gazprom-Media. It would put Video International--an advertising agency he co-founded in 1992--in a position to gain a monopoly over Russia's $400 million national-TV ad market. Presumably, a Gazprom-run NTV would gladly agree to work exclusively with Video International, which already has such deals with the two state-controlled networks. So what, says Lesin: He sold his interest in Video International in 1994. "My connections with Video International have been checked by the authorities many times, and not once have they been able to find anything wrong," he says.

IMAGE CONTROL. NTV's fate could be decided soon. Gazprom-Media, which owns 46% of the shares, claims it has voting control over NTV, and wants a shareholders' meeting on Apr. 3 to appoint a new board. Alfred Kokh, head of Gazprom-Media, says he will continue to press for control over the company, though negotiations began Mar. 3 between Media-Most and a group of foreign investors headed by CNN founder Ted Turner. If a deal with Turner gets cut before Apr. 3, Kokh might back off. He is willing to sell Gazprom-Media's shares to the foreigners--provided they buy most of Gusinsky's shares, too.

Whatever happens to NTV, Lesin is intent on buffing up Russia's image. Stung by a U.S. State Dept. report that criticized the Kremlin for endangering Russia's free press, Lesin is on a counterattack. On Feb. 27, he announced plans for an international press campaign to defend Russia's democratic credentials. At the same time, he has ordered his Ministry to issue a report on what he says is the perilous state of press freedom in the U.S. Gaining recognition for that report could be tough for a Minister whose own government is getting plenty of bad press.

By Catherine Belton in Moscow

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