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Russian outcry at loss of independent voice

Shareholders Tuesday named pro-Kremlin board at the only non-state-run network.

By Scott Peterson and Fred Weir / April 5, 2001



MOSCOW

A standoff is quickly escalating over the fate of NTV, Russia's last independent nationwide television network.

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At stake, say NTV journalists and their supporters, are not only hard-won press freedoms, but freedom for all Russians.

"The strategy is to fight," says station news director Gregory Kritchevsky.

Managers at the station, whose coverage was often critical of the government, were fired on Tuesday in what Mr. Kritchevsky describes as an illegitimate shareholders' meeting called by the state-run natural-gas giant Gazprom.

Police have declared the growing rally outside NTV's Ostankino offices, in northwest Moscow, illegal. A police attempt to enter the building at midday yesterday was repulsed.

"We are witnessing the final stage of the state monopolization of the media," says Pavel Gutionov, secretary of the Union of Russian Journalists.

"The authorities want to stifle all critical voices and ensure that only official information goes into the formation of public opinion. Therefore, NTV is the last bastion of Russia's free media. As it goes, so goes the country," he says.

Call for more protests

The union has called a mass protest on Red Square for Saturday. A similar rally in Pushkin Square last weekend drew some 10,000 to 20,000 demonstrators.

The studios have been the scene of barricades and battles more than once over the past decade as various political factions struggled to control the facility, the chief broadcasting portal to the nation's 146 million people.

Dozens died amid gun battles here in October 1993, when former President Boris Yeltsin squared off against his opponents in parliament. Journalists defending NTV today eschew any use of force, but insist the issue is the same: the fate of freedom in Russia.

The real goal: NTV parent

The current conflict has been brewing for more than year, as Gazprom maneuvered, with the backing of Russian courts and police, to seize control of Media Most, NTV's parent company.

The moves have involved two arrests of NTV-founder Vladimir Gusinsky - whom Russia is trying to extradite from Spain to face charges of embezzlement - and no fewer than 28 armed-police raids on Media Most's Moscow headquarters.

The key issue is a disputed 19 percent share packet, representing the balance of power in Media Most, which Mr. Gusinsky put up as collateral for a $262 million loan guaranteed by Gazprom three years ago. Declaring Most in default of the debt - which does not come due until June - Gazprom tried, but failed, to seize control of the share packet through courts in Moscow, London, and Gibraltar. The shares have been frozen pending resolution of the dispute.

Apparently losing patience with the protracted legal battle, Gazprom declared itself the majority shareholder. Without the share packet, Gazprom and its allies own 50.4 percent of Media Most. And a shareholders meeting called at Gazprom's Moscow headquarters on Tuesday named a new board of directors for NTV. It is headed by Gazprom's media chief Alfred Kokh, who was fired from his job as head of the State Property Department due to corruption allegations - reported by NTV.

Boris Jordan, an American financier of Russian descent, heavily mixed up in controversial Yeltsin-era privatizations, was named NTV general director.

Though the shareholders meeting was banned as illegal by two Russian courts, Gazprom presented sworn statements by both judges retracting their previous decisions.