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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When Journalists Are Free

A rally was held on Sunday on Pushkin Square to mark the fifth anniversary of the takeover of Vladimir Gusinsky's NTV television company by state-controlled Gazprom-Media in April 2001. Announcements distributed in advance of the meeting promised that "television and print journalists who had been deprived of their jobs at various times" would be in attendance. As a print journalist who recently lost his job, I decided to tag along.

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At the beginning of last year, I was hired as the editorial page editor of the newspaper Izvestia and put in charge of a two-page daily section called "Opinion and Commentary." It's remarkable that with few exceptions -- such as The Moscow Times and Vedomosti, which were created by Western companies and organized in accordance with Western practices -- the editorial page, long a standard feature of quality newspapers around the world, simply did not exist in Russian newspapers before that time. My motto for the section was: "Here you will find friends and make enemies."

I also contributed a weekly column on Fridays, in which I responded to readers' questions and complaints. I defended Izvestia's journalists from obviously unjust attacks, and on occasion I criticized Izvestia itself. In other words, I assumed the role of an ombudsman or readers' editor.

My colleagues were amazed that the executive editor was willing to put up with this. But in fact the executive editor, Vladimir Borodin, not only put up with it, he once said that he was glad that I had seized the initiative and taken on responsibilities that he originally had no intention of assigning to me.

Gazprom-Media, an arm of the state-controlled natural gas monopoly, bought a controlling stake in Izvestia in June 2005 from Prof-Media, a media holding in Vladimir Potanin's business empire. Last November, the new owners appointed a new executive editor.

The new editor immediately made clear that Izvestia would no longer have any need for an ombudsman. By the end of the year, we both realized that we couldn't work together, and early this year we parted ways. I was the one who left the paper, of course, not the new editor.

So the rally last Sunday had as much to do with me as with anyone. I nearly got up and addressed the crowd, but I thought better of it.

After all, how could I put myself on the same level as such battle-hardened champions of press freedom as Yevgeny Kiselyov and Sergei Dorenko? They have a wealth of experience in serving the Kremlin and/or the oligarchs, which amounts to more or less the same thing. They undoubtedly have dachas on the Rublyovskoye Shosse, where the entire ruling elite resides.

I've never worked a day for the Kremlin, and I've never been particularly close with the oligarchs. As for my dacha, it's extremely modest, and located at such a remove from the spots where the elite meet that I would have been ashamed to appear in the society of my persecuted colleagues.

At rallies like these it's standard practice to denounce the bloodthirsty regime of President Vladimir Putin. This doesn't sit well with me, though I can't rule out the possibility that the Kremlin had a hand in the changing of the guard at Izvestia.

If you ask me, politicians who get personally involved in the hiring and firing of editors at a newspaper with a national circulation of 150,000 simply are not capable of doing anything truly evil. This might well be the secret of their popularity with average Russians.

Our long-suffering journalists, by contrast, fondly remember the "democratic" regime of Boris Yeltsin, which spilled rivers of blood but allowed the media to criticize its actions.

This may also explain why no more than 1,000 people turned out to support the journalists in their battle against censorship.

One more thing: The organizers of Sunday's meeting were certain that NTV had been taken over in April 2001, but I published the company's obituary in Sreda magazine way back in April 1996. As soon as I learned that NTV's director at the time had joined Yeltsin's campaign team in the run-up to the presidential election that year, I knew that this dalliance with the Kremlin would not end well for NTV.

What was I supposed to tell them now: I told you so a decade ago?

My attendance at the meeting on Sunday was not entirely in vain, however. I picked up a button with the words "I'm free" emblazoned on a Russian tricolor. I pinned the button to the pajamas that I wear around the apartment, which is where I currently do most of my work.

Alexei Pankin is a freelance journalist in Moscow.