Chechnya, security services intrigue, the return of censorship and the murder trial of secret agents - all these topics are mixed into the latest news from Russia, the dismissal from the NTV channel of one of the most celebrated TV presenters, Leonid Parfenov.
He was fired on Tuesday after making public a demand made by the channel's management that his program Namedni (The Other Day) should not broadcast an interview with the widow of Chechnya's former vice president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who was killed when his car exploded in Qatar. Three Russian citizens were arrested in Qatar on suspicion of being involved in the act of terrorism. One of them was released after President Putin had a telephone conversation with the Qatari sheikh, but the two others are now giving evidence in a Qatari court. The Russian leadership views the situation as very sensitive. If Qatar finds the Russians guilty, Moscow will never accept the verdict and will engage in active foreign-policy work to see it revised.
This is the general political background around the Parfenov scandal.
The opinion of the undoubtedly talented journalist on the subject was unequivocal, "I have been in journalism for 25 years and you do not have to teach me to love my Motherland". The words reflect the essence of the conflict quite well. This is Parfenov's position on the management's reasoning for excluding the story that could have further aggravated the already serious situation with the Russian citizens in Qatar.
Today, the Izvestia newspaper published a page-long interview with Parfenov under the headline "Information Should Be Business". He showed that journalism was his business two years ago, when all the leading NTV journalists left the channel because of a conflict with the Kremlin. Parfenov was the only star to remain.
A person with such a developed sense of political survival in the profession could not but understand that his wish to broadcast a sensation would cause a conflict with his own management. The conflict led to a break-up, with both sides failing to emerge unscathed, but Parfenov remains true to his "information-is-business principle". Today he is the most in demand newsmaker in Russia.
Parfenov's dismissal reminds one of a scandal in a noble family: in the end the interview was shown in the broadcast for Russia's eastern districts, but cut from the Moscow version. The scandal, however, has given a new rise to the question: whether censorship in Russia is coming back as a political institution. It would be naпve to say it does not exist, but rash to say it does.
The authorities certainly try to control the information flow, especially if it touches upon state interests. The interview with Yandarbiyev's widow certainly hit a very sensitive nerve. Chechnya and everything related to it are issues of the country's integrity, issues the Kremlin cannot let out of sight. Many media bodies understand the rules of the game. They have almost no bans on or trouble from criticising Putin and the authorities. Yet there are unspoken agreements the press should take into account. This is not a purely Russian specific.
Immediately after the tanks opened fire on the Russian government building in 1993, a leading European newspaper asked me to write a piece on this incident. It, however, was never published because of a sentence about Yeltsin's anti-constitutional actions. The editors, I was told, had had pressure exerted on them by politicians that at that time supported President Yeltsin. I have no doubt that Russia would question the competence of Colin Powell's press secretary who cut off her boss's interview during a live broadcast. At least NTV did not cut off the story that was already being broadcast, but did it afterwards. The Russian journalist community is in a stir, but at least no one is laughing at the channel's management.
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