ST PETERSBURG, Russia -- The future of NTV television's independence
hangs in the balance as its new owner considers an offer by U.S.
media mogul Ted Turner to buy into the station.
Last week NTV -- Russia's only independent nationwide television
network -- was taken over in a boardroom coup by state-dominated
gas giant Gazprom, which ousted its founder Vladimir Gusinsky.
At present, Gusinsky owns 49 percent of NTV and Gazprom owns
But the gas company says it controls the station because Gusinsky's
share includes a 19 percent stake that was frozen by a court due
to outstanding debts to Gazprom.
Turner, founder of CNN, later announced he had struck a deal
to buy an NTV stake from Gusinsky, but said he could ensure its
independence only if he reached a deal with Gazprom as well.
The head of Gazprom's media arm said his firm would reply on
Tuesday to Turner's offer to buy into the station, but a final
deal could takemonths.
Alexander Kokh told RTR television his firm was studying a proposal
Turner had made last week.
"Our lawyers will give their answer on Tuesday," he said. "After
two or three months we will be able to say whether we have reached
a deal or not."
While the business negotiations continue, the public has given
their support to the station andits staff, who temporarily went
on strike amid fears for their editorial integrity.
Journalists at NTV have called for the public to back them against
Gazprom. They say the future of free media in Russia is atstake.
On Sunday up to 4,000 people gathered in St Petersburg in support
of what the station's journalists call a fight against the Kremlin
to save free media.
The rally, in the city's Troitskaya Square, came a day after
a similar gathering in Moscow attracted 10,000.
In St Petersburg, people held posters declaring "No TV without
NTV!" and "We won't give NTV to Putin!" denouncing what the station's
reporters say is President Vladimir Putin's leading role in a
crackdown on independent media.
Parliamentary deputy Sergei Popov told the crowd: "What they
are doing to NTV is the road to repression. But we will not go
down that road."
Igor Artemyev, from the Yabloko party, said: "For us, it is
important that NTV is not just an information provider but expresses
our way of thinking, and in this way it has become our political
NTV believes Gazprom wants to silence critical reporting on government
corruption, human rights abuses and the war in Chechnya.
But Gazprom insists it wants only to recover loans it guaranteed
on Gusinsky's behalf. Gusinsky is currently being held in Spain
fighting extradition to Russia on fraud charges.
Kokh said Turner had made two previous offers. Gazprom had agreed
to the first offer, which would have stripped Gusinsky of all
shares and given no single shareholder control of NTV, but had
rejected the second, which would have allowed Gusinsky to keep
a stake and put Turner in control.
Kokh said Turner's latest offer was "more like the first proposal
than the second," but gave no further details.
He also said Turner was not committed to buying shares from
Gusinsky unless his deal with Gazprom succeeds.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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