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Monday, 29 January, 2001, 18:57 GMT
TV journalists in Kremlin talks
NTV journalists in Red Square on the way to meet Putin
Top NTV journalists held 'emotional' meeting with Putin
By Chris Booth in Moscow

President Vladimir Putin fully backs the independence of Russia's embattled NTV television station, according to journalists from the network who have met the president in the Kremlin.

The Russian leader proposed the talks following an outcry over the interrogation of a popular NTV newscaster by the Russian prosecutor's office.

MediaMost boss, Vladimir Gusinsky
NTV's owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, is fighting extradition from Spain
The fate of NTV and its owner Vladimir Gusinsky - who faces extradition from Spain on fraud charges - is widely seen in Russia as a test of the government's commitment to press freedom.

The 11 top NTV journalists who attended the Kremlin meeting with Mr Putin were looking for answers.

In particular, they wanted to know precisely where Mr Putin stood on freedom of speech.

The meeting lasted two hours longer than scheduled and, according to the station's general director, was difficult and at times emotional.

Kremlin 'muzzling' media

But he said Mr Putin supported both NTV's independence and a proposal by American media mogul Ted Turner to buy into the company and maintain that independence.

Investigations by prosecutors into the finances of NTV and Mr Gusinsky have sparked a furious debate in Russia and abroad; critics say the Kremlin is trying to muzzle dissident media.

Tatyana Mitkova
NTV anchorwoman Tatyana Mitkova was the latest journalist to face questioning
By talking to journalists directly, Mr Putin hopes to confront such claims head on and perhaps limit the fallout, should NTV change hands.

The battle to seize the channel looks to be entering a decisive phase, and Mr Putin said NTV would have to solve its own financial troubles.

Financier George Soros has said he is ready to back Mr Turner's bid - the outcome, he says, is crucial to Russia's future.

But they will have to move fast.

State-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom, NTV's chief creditor, now claims a controlling stake in the network and says it will soon move to install a new board of directors.

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See also:

17 Dec 00 | Media reports
Russian media war hots up
16 Jun 00 | Europe
Gusinsky: Thorn in Putin's side
28 Mar 00 | Business
Russia's new oligarchs
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