MOSCOW — Russia’s media world was thrown into shock Tuesday with the arrest of media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of the country’s main independent television channel, NTV, on charges of theft and swindling.
Former banker Gusinsky, 50, was arrested at about 6 p.m. Moscow time, and spent the night in the city’s Butyrka jail, facing the prospect of up to 10 days detention before he is arraigned.
The charges against Gusinsky are nominally related to expropriation of public property. Law enforcement authorities said that the sums concerned were upward of $10 million.
Widely known in Western media circles, Gusinsky has been at the center of the tumultuous changes sweeping Russia over the last decade. He has championed liberal, pro-Western ideas through his media holdings. His TV station and newspapers regularly criticized the Kremlin over the Chechen war, civil rights and other issues.
In recent months, Gusinsky has been embroiled in a feud with President Vladimir Putin’s administration. The tycoon has alleged that the Kremlin is persecuting him because it wants to crack down on independent news media.
Gusinsky’s Media-Most holding company is one of Russia’s largest media groups and is widely considered the most outspoken.
NTV’s satirical puppet show, “Kukli” savages Putin and other top officials every week, reportedly enraging some of the lampooned officials.
Reaction from the news outlets that Gusinsky owns — principally Russia’s top commercial channel NTV — was immediate.
NTV broke previously announced programming skeds to broadcast a special studio discussion program “Glas Naroda” (Voice of the People) dedicated to the issues behind Gusinsky’s arrest. Host Yevgeny Kiselyev, who is also managing director of NTV, discussed developments with a number of prominent Russian politicians.
Independent commentators were unanimous in linking Gusinsky’s arrest to a May 11 armed raid of his main company, Media-Most, which saw police and tax officials carrying off company documents without fulfilling necessary legal requirements.
Media-Most subsequently challenged the search order in Russian courts, and won initial judicial rulings against the authorities.
Gusinsky’s arrest came a day after Putin departed for an official visit to Spain.
Interviewed by news agencies there, Putin claimed that he had not known of plans to arrest Gusinksy, and said that he hoped that the state bodies involved had properly prepared the necessary formalities for their actions.
Given a long-standing history of state opposition to Gusinsky’s independent TV holdings, which began over NTV’s coverage of Russia’s disastrous 1994-96 Chechen war, and at one point saw security guards at Media-Most held at gunpoint by armed Kremlin police, the latest development is not surprising.
Nevertheless, what happens to Gusinsky could be a test case for freedom of speech in Russia. It could also adversely affect future U.S. investment in the country, particularly in the media sector. U.S. investors such as the Smallcap World Fund, part of the American Funds Group, had acquired a 4.5% stake in Media-Most associated companies in January.