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Russia: NTV Protests 'Illegal' Takeover

Moscow, 4 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Journalists at Russia's independent NTV network today continued their protests of what they call an "illegal" takeover by the partially state-controlled gas company Gazprom.

The crisis at NTV comes amid U.S. press reports that Ted Turner, head of the U.S. CNN television, will buy some of the network's shares from its founder, Vladimir Gusinsky.

Reports in the "Washington Post" and on CNN say a $225 million deal to buy out Media-MOST, the holding company that owns a substantial part of NTV, was concluded yesterday between Turner and Gusinsky. The purported deal came the same day as Gazprom was voting in a new board of directors for NTV, Russia's only independent nationwide network.

Gusinsky is currently in Spain pending a ruling on extradition to Russia on fraud charges.

Yesterday's overhaul of the board of directors, made during an extraordinary shareholders' meeting at Gazprom headquarters, brought to a head nearly a year of court battles and public rancor between Gazprom's media subsidiary and Media-MOST.

Gazprom owns 46 percent of the channel and is its major creditor. The gas monopoly has repeatedly threatened to seize control of the network for failing to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars in debts.

But Gusinsky and other Media-MOST officials say the payment demands are only a pretext for the state to carry out its goal of muzzling NTV's independent editorial line. NTV has repeatedly irked the government with its critical reports on Kremlin policy, most notably in Chechnya. The state holds a 38-percent stake in Gazprom.

During yesterday's meeting, Gazprom used the support of a minority U.S. shareholder to put together a majority to oust the sitting board of directors. The new board is made up largely of Gazprom appointees -- including its new chairman, Gazprom-Media head Alfred Kokh -- with only one NTV journalist and two NTV executives.

The shareholders also voted to dismiss NTV Director-General Yevgeny Kiselyov, replacing him with Boris Jordan, a U.S. businessman. Jordan has many investments in Russia and is said to have played a role in the country's privatization program in 1996 and 1997. Kiselyov, who also hosts one of the network's most popular news programs, was among the station employees protesting yesterday's decision.

NTV spokesman Grigory Krichevsky said yesterday that Gazprom is attempting to wrest control of the station:

"We know the situation very well. And we understand perfectly that the only reason for what is happening today on Namyotkin Street [where Gazprom's offices are located] is to take control, political control, of the only non-governmental nationwide TV company."

This morning, NTV dropped its regular programming and broadcast news exclusively. The channel's logo on the screen is slashed with a red "protest" inscription.

Many of the station's journalists remained overnight at NTV headquarters, fearing that the station's new management might try to take over the offices during the night. As of this (4 April) morning, no new management had appeared.

Last night, NTV aired an impromptu "Russia without NTV" program. The network's journalists and several liberal politicians spoke out in support of the channel.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the most prominent figure to speak in favor of the network. Gorbachev, who holds a seat on NTV's advisory council, said it was time to engage President Vladimir Putin on the issue:

"The people need a free press. Without it, nothing [the president] does means anything. I was told that a [NTV] journalists' meeting rejected all these decisions, did not accept the changes in management, and that they would protest. And I said to tell the journalists that I share their position."

Vladimir Pozner -- a veteran journalist on Russia's state-controlled ORT network -- was among the few representatives of outside media in the audience. He said that NTV lacked broad support because other journalists and Russian citizens "still did not understand that attacks on NTV were compromising free speech for everyone."

In fact, most Russian newspapers this morning gave only fleeting coverage to the Gazprom takeover, concentrating instead on Putin's state of the nation address yesterday. Only one paper, "Noviye Izvestia," criticized the takeover as spelling the end of independent television in Russia.

The Duma today rejected a motion put forward by the opposition Yabloko faction to put the changeover at NTV on today's parliamentary agenda. But Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov did criticize Gazprom's new management team. He called them "crooks" incapable of solving the network's financial problems.