MOSCOW, April 14-Gazprom staged a dramatic pre-dawn takeover of Russia's only major independent television network this morning, as officials from the state-controlled energy company barged into the headquarters of the protesting journalists and cut off their final news broadcast mid-sentence.
Denouncing the move as a Kremlin-sponsored attack on freedom of speech, many of NTV's correspondents quit en masse and marched across the street to a small cable television station also owned by ousted NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky. Within minutes, they were broadcasting their protest again on TNT, but only to a tiny audience in some parts of Moscow.
The takeover came just hours after disputed new NTV general director Boris Jordan insisted publicly that he had no intention of entering the headquarters by force. But starting at around 4 a.m., Gazprom officials arrived at Ostankino broadcasting center here with their own private security forces, replaced the guards loyal to the journalists, and ordered the correspondents to submit or leave.
Shortly after 8 a.m., the reporters began broadcasting the news using NTV's signal. Minutes later, in the middle of a report by anchor Andrei Norkin, the new management yanked them off the air.
"This is an armed seizure," said reformist politician Grigory Yavlinsky, who rushed to Ostankino early this morning. Igor Malashenko, one of the ousted NTV board members, called it a "creeping coup," while human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov said Gazprom's action was nothing less than a revival of Soviet-era repressions.
Now holed up inside the journalists' former offices, Jordan said he is simply resolving a business dispute. "It wasn't an action of force," he said. "We simply came to work and everything is fine here."
The standoff began April 3, when Gazprom teamed up with a small U.S.-based shareholder to claim a majority of NTV's stock and called a meeting to oust Gusinsky and NTV's top management. The journalists refused to accept that result, barricaded themselves in their offices and staged a three-day on-air protest. This week, they filed two lawsuits against Gazprom's action but court dates are not scheduled until May.
Gazprom is headed by a top aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the journalists say they are being taken off the air in order to silence criticism of the Kremlin. Putin himself said nothing about the takeover today as state television showed him on an unannounced visit to the breakaway region of Chechnya, where Russian troops have been fighting a second bloody war whose popularity helped propel Putin to the presidency last year.
The original at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A17960-2001Apr14.html