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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Meandering Musings of a Media Escapist

The big media news last week was the management shake-up at Noviye Izvestia. As you may recall, the newspaper was launched back in 1997 by a group of journalists led by then-editor Igor Golembiovsky, who left the old Izvestia in protest after Vladimir Potanin's Uneximbank acquired a controlling stake in the paper.

Noviye Izvestia found a financial backer in Boris Berezovsky. Its complex ownership structure and convoluted financial and management schemes were vintage Berezovsky. The oligarch apparently paid the bills, but his friend and associate Oleg Mitvol owned the controlling stake in the paper. Golembiovsky was tapped as the paper's editor and general director -- the very person who as de facto manager of a controlling stake in the old Izvestia admitted publicly that he had no idea how much of the newspaper's stock was held by each of its shareholders -- LUKoil, Unexim and the editorial staff.

Last week Mitvol, Noviye Izvestia's nominal owner, sacked his general director. Berezovsky immediately announced that the move had been sanctioned by the Kremlin. The authorities, he said, had moved "to take control of an influential newspaper on the eve of the [parliamentary] elections."

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When I found out about this, I felt a sense of gratitude to Press Minister Mikhail Lesin for the first time in my life. Have you noticed how Lesin's public image has changed of late? Until recently he was perceived in Russia and abroad as the main threat to freedom of speech in Russia. The Russian Union of Journalists named him enemy No. 1 of press freedom for his role in exiling Vladimir Gusinsky and Berezovsky from the Russian mass media.

Then suddenly, less than a year later, everything changed. Lesin was now widely regarded as the father of media reform, a process initiated last spring by the Russian-American Media Entrepreneurship Dialogue and followed in the summer by a conference called "The Media Industry: Directions for Reform." Lesin was in large part responsible for securing President Vladimir Putin's veto of repressive amendments to Russia's media laws regulating the coverage of anti-terrorism operations.

I personally have always been critical of Lesin. Gusinsky's NTV had been fatally corrupted by the Yeltsin regime. But rather than deal with the network in a timely manner, and with the approval of the OSCE, PACE, the EU and U.S. leadership, Lesin allowed the wrangling to drag on for a year, during which the West switched sides.

As minister, he could have pushed a couple of changes in the Tax Code through the government and parliament years ago, saving us those months of useless dialogue with the Americans and negotiations within the media industry. Because these few changes in the Tax Code, finally adopted last year, were all we needed by way of media reform.

In short, I perceived Lesin as a democratic "fifth column" in an administration that was trying very hard to tighten the screws.

So why do I now feel gratitude toward Lesin? On Jan. 13, the press marked its 300th anniversary. In his remarks on the occasion, Lesin said 2003 would be a year of festivities. In so doing he delivered those of us who write about the press of the need to come up with news pegs for our articles. In this jubilee year, anything about the press will do. So rather than sort out all the details of Berezovsky's latest media mess, I have written this column with no particular point in mind. And I dedicate it to our current phase in the history of Russian journalism.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.sreda-mag.ru)