Leonid Parfenov’s dismissal: NTV management’s personal contribution to solving the free speech problem?


“Parfen-Off.” “Parefenonsense.” “Victim of the Black Widow.” “Freedom of Silence.” “Window Slammed Shut.” “Loyalists Needed.”

Those were just some of the headlines used for this week’s top story: the dismissal of Leonid Parfenov.

The articles about the notorious dismissal focus on several issues: above all, whether Parfenov had the right to wash dirty linen in public – that is, to make an internal corporate directive public.

This is followed by the question of whether his dismissal was appropriate (as noted by a media agency, under the current circumstances it would be easy for any lawyer to get Parfenov reinstated).

Next comes the discussion of the losses (including financial ones) which NTV television suffered as a result of the resolute actions of its managers.

Concern regarding the general state of freedom of speech in Russia crowns this all.

The majority of analysts are gloomy on the last point.

In the opinion of Valery Yakov, an observer with Novye Izvestia, discussing the circumstances under which the host of Namedni was dismissed makes no sense – one should mention a specific trend: “Freedom of speech in Russia has been deliberately and consistently replaced with the freedom of silence. The methods of implementing this ‘democratic’ replacement may vary: revoke licenses in some cases, flood channels with lawsuits or accuse them of bankruptcy in others.” In the meantime, stresses Yakov, “by a strange concatenation of circumstances” the journalists, publications, and programs which have been imprudent enough to display their critical attitude towards the regime fall victim to similar actions.”

“The era of perestroika liberties, major personalities and big money is departing. Political reality demands new heroes from television – less demanding and more manageable,” Yevgeny Kiselev, chief editor of Moskovskiye Novosti weekly, says nostalgically.

In the opinion of Kiselev, no wonder many observers tend to discern political reasons behind the dismissal of Parfenov, who has always distanced himself from “frontal” politics: the authorities have “tolerated a great deal, but won’t tolerate it anymore.”

Well-known journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza told Novaya Gazeta: “This is a public whipping, based on the principle of punishing one of your own in order to intimidate others.” This is being done as a warning for other television hosts like Shuster, Soloviev, Osokin, and Mitkova – so they will be aware of the consequences of stepping out of line.

Kara-Murza is certain that censorship isn’t really the issue in this case: “If there really had been concerns about damaging the case of the Russian intelligence agents on trial in Qatar, that story would not have been broadcast in the Far East edition of Parfenov’s program either.” Therefore, this was a test of NTV management’s readiness to do the bidding of the authorities: ” NTV management asked: ‘What is your will?’ The authorities replied: ‘A whipping for Leonid Parfenov.'” As a result, by sacrificing the major figure in the NTV television network, NTV management demonstrated their loyalty to the Kremlin.

“The elimination of Parfenov as a class, an absolutely clear signal for all. This is not the first signal, and I’m sure it’s not the last,” says Leonid Radzikhovsky in Russkii Kurier.

Indeed, argues Radzikhovsky, construction of a “free society of free people” has been underway in Russia (as the president has lately specified in his address to the Federal Assembly).

It should be noted that the construction is far from being finished. Moreover, “we are constructing it ALTOGETHER, UNDER THE DIRECTION. This is how it all goes!”

In case anybody imagines “HE HAS BUILT this society for himself already, that HE HAS BEEN RESIDING this society, such people are deeply erroneous.” The example of Parfenov was as good demonstration of that as the example of Khodorkovsky.”

Indeed, in his first interview following his dismissal for Kommersant Parfenov demonstratively noted that “information should be a business. That’s it.”

Meanwhile, notions of what the media business really is may vary, at least in Russia.

On behalf of those who “don’t understand” the essential point of these events, Radzikhovsky asks: “What’s stopping you from doing business like everyone else does in the world of Russian PR, by means of normal kickbacks? After all, if the purpose of business is to make money, then Parfenov’s counterparts at the state-controlled channels aren’t doing any worse than Parfenov. Huge sums of money are involved there, and the salaries paid to the top TV personalities are by no means less than what Parfenov makes.”

Those channels operate under a slogan intelligible to everyone in Russia: “Our business is pleasing our superiors.”

Clearly enough, Parfenov meant the independent media business. “This was what Khodorkovsky had attempted in his sphere of business,” notes Leonid Radzikhovsky.

Both of them have been taught a lesson (of various degrees of sternness).

However, says Leonid Radzikhovsky, no lessons are for a long while required to society or to the journalists. In his opinion, the majority has understood this all long before Parfenov’s dismissal.

Alexander Ryklin says in Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal: “When NTV’s executives say they fired Parfenov independently, without any pressure from the top, I believe them implicitly. The confidence in relations between the Kremlin officials and our media generals has reached a level which actually requires no direct instructions – since everybody knows perfectly well what kind of television broadcasting is supposed to exist in Russia.”

According to Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, the Kremlin officials haven’t even been holding weekly meetings with television executives recently – nor will they, most likely, until the next electoral cycle.

However, this happened “not because the Kremlin no longer cares what Russian citizens are watching over dinner after work. It’s just that cleaning up the airwaves may now be considered accomplished.” Parfenov’s dismissal has proved to be the latest feature in this significant campaign.

Yelena Rykovtseva says in Novaya Gazeta: “It wasn’t Senkevich who fired Parfenov – leave him alone! Senkevich only has the right to sign the dismissal order. Parfenov is in the VIP category, and you-know-who gives the signal to attack people in that category.”

According to Rykovtseva, Senkevich is “not so foolish” as not to realize “the gap emerging in the NTV channel’s advertising, entertainment and reputation.”

Alexander Ryklin has no doubts that Nikolai Senkevich is being at least slightly evasive in saying that NTV won’t incur heavy losses after the end of Parfenov’s program (although Namedni was the top-rating current affairs program, it was expensive to produce and not very profitable). “This could be true, but one must bear in mind that Namedni program boosted the channel’s overall rating, and that is what advertisers primarily look at,” notes Ryklin.

However, he explains, the NTV managers had no choice: “Vladimir Putin’s sensitive attitude about everything related to Chechnya is widely known, as well as his sensitivity about everything related to the special services.” Besides, the story of “our home-grown hitmen” – the agents on trial in Qatar – was of a peculiar nature: according to the sources of Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, the president “even sent special signals asking that this issue should not be discussed as yet.”

It is not customary to reject requests of the head of stat and panic started at NTV: “The time wasn’t proper to calculate profit.”

Meanwhile, Boris Jordan, former general director of the NTV network, says in an interview with Kommersant-Vlast magazine that the company’s problem is “poorly-structured business.”

Indeed, asks Jordan, “why were the journalists sent to Qatar to film an interview if this interview wasn’t intended for broadcasting?” Sending them there was very costly – why was it done if the story was unnecessary?

As the Vedomosti newspaper comments, Western business has used to treat information as an independent item for sale. All manufacturers of this item – newspapers, magazine, television channels – are selling it “the same as other people are selling soda water.” The fact that this item permanently arouses lot of disputes and reprimands is quite a different matter.

As noted by Vedomosti, “almost everyday the journalists are accused of revealing information prematurely, told that they need to wait a while, have a sense of responsibility, and so on.” Nevertheless, NTV was persistently trying to position itself in compliance with the directives accepted in business, with various degree of success.

Now, says Vedomosti, illusions are dispelled: “No business executive worth his calling would destroy his product for ideological considerations; but NTV agreed to destroy the best it had merely because some state official asked it to.”

In the opinion of Vedomosti, it is possible to state that an attitude of journalism as a business hasn’t taken root in Russia: “The regime, which is the beneficiary of the NTV company, is unable tolerate news broadcasting being determined by ratings, sales, and revenues, rather than some paramount interests.” Hence the story of the shutdown of the Namedni program.

However, Boris Jordan doesn’t agree with Parfenov’s dismissal being described as a political act: “More likely, the reason should be sought within the NTV company.” It is related to a management vacuum at NTV – the outrageous lack of sensible senior executives.

“When island-programs exist at television channels and their editors are not in touch and no common political line is available, each programs then displays its own view of the current affairs,” Jordan says. In the meantime, he says, the channel didn’t even have elementary coordinative meetings, at which “it would be possible to decide that the time is improper for such stories, since this endangers the life of our compatriots.”

The ensuing grandiose scandal has been a result of complete absence of coordination in the channel’s activities, asserts Jordan.

However, as reported by Gazeta, Leonid Parfenov is absolutely sure that the story involving Malika Yandarbiyeva’s interview was a mere plea for his superiors: “They’d find another plea for faultfinding.”

Moreover, former host of Namedni program says that over his entire period of work “he hadn’t a single conversation about the profession, the business, the state of affairs at the television channel with Nikolai Senkevich.” Therefore, he didn’t merely know anything about the general political framework, of neglecting which he’s accused.

“What could be violated under similar circumstances?!” asks Parfenov in his numerous interviews for various editions.

His colleagues are not very condescending about his escapade. As noted by Yevgeny Kiselev in Moskovskiye Novosti, “the habit of being with the Fronde has become an ingrained part of Parfenov.”

For a long while, high ratings have been redeeming many factors: the authorities had to overlook Parfenov’s “showdowns of various degree in a faultless packing of ingenious and stylish stories.” The superiors tried to ignore the negligence for subordination, “willfulness and arrogance, which was beyond the framework of decency at times.”

However, in the opinion of Kommersant-Vlast magazine, Nikolai Senkevich hasn’t forgotten Parfenov’s escapades of February 2003, after Boris Jordan was dismissed. In his Namedni program Parfenov then announced his dislike for the new directors in an eccentric manner. “It is unclear so far how could censorship pass a tremendously funny and disgustingly physiological story of proctologist Senkevich, who had been removed by appointment of the new director of NTV,” Yevgeny Kiselev noted in this respect.

However, Senkevich “unsophisticated yet,” says Kommersant-Vlast, was then forced to take his utmost pains to return Parfenov for his channel from a demonstrative vacation.

But the situation has changed, “quite of late,” says the magazine. According to sources of Kommersant-Vlast, following a new series of the shocking stories Senkevich “asked the sophisticated people” ho he should act in relation to Parfenov. Allegedly, the reply was: “Decide on yourself, you’re the director for a long while.” So, he did decide.

This hidden motive is not ruled out, thinks Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal: by his permanent causticity Parfenov has managed to offend so many people, right up to the top.

A notorious story of Vladimir Putin’s latest inauguration, in which the president was presented as an autocrat and the ceremony was depicted as a coronation, is a good example. As noted by Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, the story proved “to be a mockery, rather than an irony.”

Altogether, this is Parfenov’s “trademark:” “not the frontal criticism of the regime, but mocking it over, which is much more efficient and insulting” was typical for the style of his programs.”

On the other hand, objects Kommersant-Vlast, the scandal related to the dismissal of a famous journalist didn’t occur in proper time for the Kremlin. It is possible to believe that Vladimir Putin was unlikely to be rejoiced at the stir surrounding another “attack of the Russian authorities on the freedom of speech” on the eve of the G8 summit.

The response of the West wasn’t in coming: as reported by Novaya Gazeta, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has made its mind to carry out its own investigation “in connection to the circumstances of closing the Namedni program at NTV channel and dismissing Leonid Parfenov.”

As Aidan White, IFJ secretary general said in Brussels, the method and the style of doing it has a distinct tinge of the memorable commissar’s policy, when the journalism is subject to inadmissible control. The IFJ thinks there is every ground to fear this could be the state’s warning for independent journalists, which makes them act with care. Besides, the hope for greater freedom of speech in Russia has been delivered another strike.”

Meanwhile, the Russian journalism has different viewpoints on the story of Namedni program.

Alxei Venediktov, chief editor of Echo of Moscow radio station told in his interview to Novye Izvestia on June 2 when Parfenov was dismissed that on the one hand, withdrawal of a program’s part “under motifs not mentioned in the law on the media” is an evident act of censorship. On the other hand, a journalist who agrees this act and broadcasts an abridged program is the responsible person. “So, after the program was broadcast Mr. Parfenov should hardly make a stir and shift responsibility to his director.”

In the opinion of Venediktov, this situation only had two outcomes: “Either you leave at once, in case you don’t like the corporate policy, or sit and keep a low profile. How could this be linked to the freedom of speech?”

However, the majority of journalists support Parfenov.

“All victories of the journalism is nothing else but victories in a war versus ‘corporate ethics.’ The corporations of politicians, military, officials, and mafiosi are hiding their secrets from society. The corporation of journalists doesn’t allow them doing so, trying not to, quite often risking our lives or at the cost of our lives, as in the story of Dmitri Kholodov,” Lyudmila Telen says in Moskovskiye Novosti.

However, the author doesn’t draw any parallels: “Against this backdrop Parfenov’s deed is not an exploit; it is evidence of his professional qualification.”

Nobody doubts that Parfenov is still very much employable. Vladimir Kara-Murza stressed to Novaya Gazeta that Parfenov’s departure from NTV is a loss for the audience, not for Parfenov: “I feel sorry for the viewers. I don’t think Parfenov himself is in any danger; for example, he has a good personal relationship with Konstantin Ernst, head of the First Channel.”

According to Kara-Murza, Parfenov has the reputation of “a cautious person who is able to plan several moves ahead.” Perhaps, says Kara-Murza, Parfenov concluded that “the days of Senkevich, for example, are numbered – so there’s no longer any need to get along with this management team, and he can afford to wait for better times.”

Yevgeny Kiselev develops this topic: among those who know Parfenov for a long while, “some say he’s a brilliant PR-expert and a wise manager who never indulges in silly escapades. Others think impetuous deeds are typical of him.” Nevertheless, a rumor of a “resourceful” combination is circulating the journalistic circles: “supposedly, the scandal had been aimed at discrediting and replacing the incumbent director of NTV company.”

Against the background of long-awaited sale of the channel and its re-profiling this assumption doesn’t seem to be completely delirious, notes Kiselev.

There are examples of a calmer approach.

“Don’t worry so much. He had been knowingly aimed at his dismissal. While you’re in a fuss here, Namedni team is sitting at Twin Peaks (a cafe in Ostankino), celebrating a long-awaited event,” an NTV employee told Nikolai Silayev, the author of the article about Namedni program published by Profil magazine, on the day of Parfenov’s dismissal.

In Silayev’s opinion, this is quite trustworthy? The effect produced is the chief thing. The author of the program is a snob, aesthete, favorite of fortune. A guy from Cherepovets, who’d become the Russia’s leading television host.”

Boris Jordan has no doubts that “a gifted person as Parfenov is won’t be out of work.” Diplomatic Jordan is certain that both Konstantin Ernst and Oleg Dobrodeyev (“who are very clever managers”) are getting ready to employ Parfenov at their channels: “This will prove that no big-time politics was behind Parfenov’s dismissal.”

However, Eduard Sagalayev, president of the National Television Broadcasters Association, says that despite a squall of articles, stories and interviews in reputable publications, one thing remains unclear: at what level was the decision made to shut down the Namedni program and fire its producer, and who was responsible?

Was it Nikolai Senkevich? Or Alexander Gerasimov, who signed the order to pull the Qatar story off the air? Or Gazprom-Media, the majority shareholder in NTV? Or did the president himself “simply tire of Parfenov’s stories?”

Sagalayev adds: “Hypothetically, I assume Leonid Parfenov’s team may now be employed by the last remaining private television channel that provides coverage of national politics: REN TV.”

However, in the opinion of Profil magazine, Parfenov has managed to achieve an impossible result: “Stay on air for three years against the backdrop of ill-favored Kremlin’s concern for the “TV-box” and turning the state channels into an integral State Television and Radio Commission of the Soviet Union.”

Needless to say – he’s Fortune’s favorite, indeed.