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By Michael Wines

TV Network Resisting Hostile Moves in Russia

The New York Times, April 5, 2001

MOSCOW, April 5 It was still not clear today who controls NTV, the controversial and debt-saddled independent television network that has deftly cast itself as a flickering candle of press freedom in a stiff Russian wind.

What was abundantly clear, however, was who was not in control: not the government-dominated monopoly Gazprom, which sprang a hostile takeover on Tuesday. And definitely not the Kremlin, which more than a few people here say is intent on snuffing out NTV.

The day after Gazprom said it had gathered the backing of 50.5 percent of NTV's shares and replaced its management, the network's journalists assembled in on-camera defiance. On television screens, the bright red word "protest" was superimposed over the white NTV logo.

The daytime diet of soaps and game shows was supplanted by occasional news programs, punctuated by a silent shot of journalists occupying a studio hallway.

"Everything that has been promised to us by these people, the so- called new leaders, it's all just words," Yevgeny Kirichenko, an NTV military correspondent said in an interview. "Everyone understands it's simply the Kremlin standing behind them."

The Kremlin, disavowing any role in the dispute, silently took a pasting from politicians and public figures who denounced the takeover as a threat to press freedom.

For today, at least, it appeared that NTV and its founder, the media baron Vladimir A. Gusinsky, had thrashed Gazprom in the battle for public opinion. Mr. Gusinsky, who backed President Vladimir V. Putin's opponents in legislative elections 17 months ago, was jailed in June and later fled to Spain, only to be arrested on Russian embezzlement charges last fall on an extradition warrant.

Mr. Gusinsky claims the Gazprom campaign to take over NTV is but part of a larger pattern of political persecution aimed at silencing Mr. Putin's critics. Though Mr. Gusinsky is no stranger to politics he is a onetime Kremlin insider who has turned his media loose on enemies more than once his accusation rings true with many.

Frustrated, Gazprom officials went so far today as to challenge NTV's leading journalist, the respected anchorman Yevgeny Kiselyov, to a debate on press freedom. Gazprom has offered a public guarantee that journalists will remain free to report independently, and the official in charge of NTV, Alfred Kokh, accused Mr. Kiselyov today of distorting that pledge to maintain his and Mr. Gusinsky's power.

Whether the publicity battle matters in the long run is uncertain. For whatever NTV's political troubles, its main problem with Gazprom is financial and urgent.

Gazprom owns 46 percent of NTV and holds another 19 percent as collateral for debts Mr. Gusinsky's company, Media-MOST, must pay off by July. Gazprom claims, and Mr. Gusinsky denies, that it took control of the network on Tuesday by winning support from a California investment firm that holds a 4.4 percent stake in NTV, and cast its lot with Mr. Gusinsky's opponents.

Whatever the truth, Mr. Gusinsky appears to have little chance of retaining control of the network because his only recourse for paying off the Gazprom debt appears to be a sale of his stake in the company.

As the standoff hardened today, a potential peacemaker emerged: Ted Turner, founder of Cable News Network, who said today that he has a tentative deal with Mr. Gusinsky to take a minority share in NTV.

A person close to that deal said Mr. Turner has signed an agreement with Mr. Gusinsky to buy roughly one third of NTV's stock, plus smaller stakes in related cable and pay TV channels, for an undisclosed sum.

At the same time, Mr. Gusinsky would be allowed to keep roughly a one-fifth stake in NTV, but would give up any management role or seat on the network's board of directors.

While that agreement seemed to inch the crisis closer to a solution, the three sides have been negotiating for months without signing an accord. Mr. Turner's new agreement rests on persuading Gazprom to go along, and perhaps to sell Mr. Turner additional shares as well. Gazprom's choice to run NTV, the American investor Boris Jordan, has also said he wants to cut an ownership deal with Mr. Turner.

But Gazprom has poisonous relations with Mr. Gusinsky, and has previously called for his removal from the company. It was not clear whether the company would continue to allow Mr. Gusinsky to keep a silent stake in the network. A spokesman for a new company formed by Mr. Turner to manage the NTV investment, Brian Faw, said in an interview tonight that Mr. Turner is not taking sides in the feud. Instead, he said, Mr. Turner's main aim is to ensure than NTV remains an independent network insulated from political influence.

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The original at http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/05/world/05RUSS.html

NTV Case

The New York Times, April 5, 2001

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