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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shuster Says Lobbyists in Washington Ousted Him

Radio Liberty's Moscow bureau chief said lobbyists in Washington engineered his sacking from the U.S.-funded radio station because he refused to boycott NTV television after a controversial takeover last month.

Savik Shuster said Friday he had been sacked for resuming appearances on NTV's soccer chat show "The Third Half" after state-dominated natural gas monopoly Gazprom took over the station last month. He has appeared on the show since 1998.

"I'm so shocked, I can't even describe my shock. I'm bewildered, I never expected anything like that," Shuster said in a telephone interview. "I think this is close to censorship."

He said he had been officially informed of his sacking by the station's director of broadcasting Jeff Trimble.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty declined to comment on Shuster's dismissal. Shuster's firing could embarrass U.S. officials who have described the NTV saga as a test case for Russian press freedom. (See editorial, page 10.)

NTV's founder Vladimir Gusinsky said Gazprom staged the takeover on the orders of the Kremlin to muzzle a vocal critic. Gazprom and the Kremlin say the takeover was a purely commercial dispute.

Scores of dissident journalists quit the channel in protest and moved to a second-tier channel owned by Boris Berezovsky, another media magnate who has fallen out with President Vladimir Putin.

"I refused to obey not clear and direct orders, but what I would say were political and ideological orders," Shuster said. "The reprimand in which I was ordered to stop doing the football show on NTV was absolutely, absolutely ideological and political. And for me that is not acceptable."

Shuster has a long record of independent journalism, dating from the 1980s when he was blacklisted for reporting from the mujahedin side during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

He was also prominent in fighting the 1999 arrest of Radio Liberty's Andrei Babitsky, whose reports from Grozny saw the radio station come under fierce attack.

Shuster, reading from his dismissal notice, said Radio Liberty had told him his conduct "constitutes a violation of RFE/RL professional code, the ethical foundation of our work, as well as the company's conflict of interest policy."

The station said his involvement with the Gazprom-led NTV, under the current circumstances, was "harmful to the public trust upon which RFE/RL credibility and effectiveness are based," he said, quoting from the letter.

But Shuster said boycotting the station would have meant picking sides in the dispute.

"The refusal to continue the program on NTV would have implicitly meant my support of Berezovsky and Gusinsky, which I think would have been wrong and damaging, for me personally and for the reputation of the radio," he said.

The journalist blamed his sacking on an intense campaign in the United States. "I think it's a political decision as a result of intense lobbying in Washington. Who lobbied and whose interests were being lobbied, that I don't know, but can only guess. … I suspect those people who want to convince the entire world that freedom of speech belongs to one or another oligarch."

Shuster, 48, said he would continue to appear on NTV but had no idea where his future lies.