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By Ron Popeski

Big Rally Defends Russia's Independent NTV Channel

Saturday March 31 8:24 AM ET

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters, many with signs denouncing President Vladimir Putin (news - web sites), poured into a Moscow square on Saturday to defend Russia's sole independent national TV station from what they saw as official attack.

Prominent liberals told more than 10,000 people in Pushkin Square, traditional meeting place and site of protests even in Soviet times, that NTV television was in danger of being closed.

The rally, interspersed with rock music, was one of the largest in years to be attended by Muscovites grown apathetic after political passions of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Demonstrators carried green balloons or stuck green balls to their clothing, echoing NTV's green ball trademark. They spilled over into adjacent streets and perched on tree branches.

"Mr. President, leave NTV alone!" said one placard. Others had prison bars superimposed on the NTV logo.

NTV's founder, businessman Vladimir Gusinsky, currently in Spain fighting extradition on fraud charges, is trying to fend off a takeover bid by state-dominated gas giant Gazprom. A shareholders' meeting next week may try to oust him.

Liberals see the row, and legal action against NTV, as a test of Putin's commitment to press freedom and fair reporting of issues like Russia's war against separatist Chechnya.

"We know why they want to destroy NTV. So that we will never know about millions of dollars taken out of the country...about how a war is being conducted with slogans of fighting terrorism and corruption," Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko party, told the gathering.

"We know that this is not about fighting terrorists and corruption but about the fight for press freedom."

NTV has earned a reputation as a critic of Kremlin policies, particularly Russia's two military campaigns against Chechnya. It has accused Putin of chipping away at individual freedoms in a little more than a year in office.

Director Says Station Could Be Closed

Yevgeny Kiselyov, NTV's general director and anchor of its flagship news program, said the station could be closed soon.

"It's quite serious. I am going to present my own program on Sunday and this one could be the last. It is very simple -- a new management could do anything," he told reporters. "Those who say this is a financial dispute are either idiots or liars. It's about freedom of the press, of society, of Russia."

Sergei Parkhomenko, editor of the weekly Itogi magazine, said the rally "shows we have support. Political leaders will be furious. But maybe those police in masks carrying out raids on our offices will think twice about what they are doing."

Musicians and athletes also spoke in defense of NTV during the two-hour gathering in bright spring sunshine.

Demonstrators at one point watched figures from NTV's weekly satirical "Puppets" show on a big screen. Putin's puppet likeness, dressed in skiing gear in an allusion to frequent outings on the slopes, welcomed people to the square.

The rally had been given wide publicity all week on NTV and on radio stations and newspapers in Gusinsky's Media-Most group.

But Russia's other two national television networks, state RTR television and ORT public television, ignored the gathering in their Saturday afternoon news bulletins.

Many rally participants were pleased at the large turnout.

"I just wanted to do my bit for NTV," said Maya, a museum worker in her sixties. "It was so good to look around at all the faces of people who had clearly thought about all these issues."

See also:

20,000 Turn Out in Support of NTV
Combined Reports
The Moscow Times, Monday, April 2, 2001, p.3

Thousands Demonstrate in Moscow
The Associated Press
Saturday March 31 7:11 AM ET

Russians Protest for Press Freedom
The Associated Press
Saturday March 31 11:52 AM ET

Saturday March 31 8:24 AM ET

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