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Tuesday, 3 April, 2001, 10:35 GMT 11:35 UK
Russian TV station loses freedom
Yevgeny Kiselyov with Gazprom security guard
Media-Most's managing director (right) tried to stop coup
A battle for control of Russia's only nationwide independent television station, NTV, has been won by the state-dominated gas monopoly, sparking fears that media freedom has been dealt a serious blow.

In a boardroom coup, the old NTV board was sacked by the gas firm Gazprom, which says it owns a controlling stake of the station.

We do not doubt that Vladimir Putin, as in the past, knows about what is happening and bears responsibility for the consequences

NTV journalists
But NTV's original parent company, the Media-Most empire run by tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, says the meeting was illegal and the new board appointed by Gazprom has no legitimacy.

The fate of NTV, which frequently criticises the government, is being seen as a key indicator of free speech in Russia. Thousands have attended street protests to support its independence, and ex-president Mikhail Gorbachev has accused the Kremlin of trying to silence it.

Mr Gusinsky himself remains in Spain, where he is locked in an extradition battle over what he says are politically-motivated charges against him.

Mr Gusinsky and his managing director, Yevgeny Kiselyov, have both been ousted from the board by the Gazprom changes.

They are holding a shareholders' meeting without the general director - it's absurd

Yevgeny Kiselyov
The men have previously accused the Kremlin of directing a campaign against them, because of their history of government criticism.

NTV's news reports have included negative portrayal of the war in the Chechnya, corruption exposes, and reports on the decline of public services.

Mr Kiselyov denounced the boardroom coup as illegal.

"They are holding a shareholders' meeting without the general director. It's absurd," he told journalists before the announcement.

Street demonstration in favour of NTV
Thousands have supported NTV's independence
Media-Most spokesman Dmitry Ostalsky also said the new board had no legitimacy. "The so-called shareholders' meeting can have no legal consequences," he told Reuters news agency.

NTV journalists have issued a statement condemning the move.

"We understand that the ultimate goal of this meeting is the imposing of full political control over us," said the statement.

"We do not doubt that Vladimir Putin, as in the past, knows about what is happening and bears responsibility for the consequences."

President Vladimir Putin
President Putin has previously insisted that NTV will remain independent
The journalists have previously attended Kremlin talks with Mr Putin, at which they have beenassued that he values free speech.

According to Interfax, three old board members have survived the Gazprom cull, joined by six new appointees.

They include Gazprom chief Rem Vyakhirev and the head of its media arm, Alfred Koch.

Court battle

Until February, Gazprom's stake in NTV was a minority 46% holding. Media-Most held 19%.

But after a debt battle between the two firms - Gazprom says it is owed millions - a court froze Media-Most's stake, in effect handing control to Gazprom.

Russia's only two other nationwide television stations, ORT and RTR, are already controlled by the government.

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See also:

10 Feb 01 | Europe
Russia TV saga rumbles on
29 Jan 01 | Europe
TV journalists in Kremlin talks
17 Dec 00 | Media reports
Russian media war hots up
26 Mar 01 | Europe
Russian tycoon released on bail
16 Jun 00 | Europe
Gusinsky: Thorn in Putin's side
28 Mar 00 | Business
Russia's new oligarchs
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