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Saturday, 27 January, 2001, 18:09 GMT
Fury at Russian TV 'takeover'
Tatyana Mitkova
NTV staff rallied around colleague Tatyana Mitkova
Russia's only independent television channel, NTV, is up in arms after an apparent final push by the state to take it over.

A Moscow court froze voting rights over 19% of the channel's shares, which original owner Media-Most had been offering as collateral for its debts.

An overt brazen attempt to seize our company showing total disrespect for the law

NTV's Yevgeniy Kiselev, on Gazprom's takeover

The state gas giant Gazprom, which owns 46% of the shares, has declared itself in control.

NTV was quick to condemn the court move as the culmination of months of manoeuvring by the state to get its hands on the channel that dared to question the government line on everything from Chechnya to the Kursk submarine disaster.

They argued that NTV was in a position to sell the disputed shares to a foreign investor and, as Director-General Yevgeniy Kiselev put it, "thereby get off the Kremlin's hook".

Pledge to journalists

But for the man appointed by Gazprom to head NTV, Alfred Kokh, it was a simple victory which, by his own admission, had been sanctioned by President Vladimir Putin.
Alfred Kokh
Mr Kokh formerly headed Russia's privatisation agency

"The shares, debts and finances should be Gazprom's prerogative," Mr Kokh quoted the president as telling him less than a fortnight before the takeover.

Meanwhile, Gazprom "should not touch the journalists and management" as it was the president's duty to "ensure freedom of speech".

For NTV's director-general, Mr Kokh's revelation was an "amazing story" which boiled down to Mr Putin saying "you go on and deal with the shares and money and I will deal with the journalists".

According to Mr Kiselev, the Prosecutor-General's Office has illustrated how the journalists were to be dealt.

It called in Mr Kiselev and one of the channel's top news presenters, Tatyana Mitkova, for questioning on corruption allegations.

Buyout or sellout?

Media-Most owner Vladimir Gusinskiy is himself under house arrest in Spain facing a Russian warrant for his extradition on fraud charges which he strenuously denies.

He says that the TV channel he founded is a thorn in Mr Putin's side.

Putin doesn't like what we show on television, he doesn't like the fact that we broadcast pictures of people freezing from cold

Vladimir Gusinskiy

"Every time Putin declares that there are no problems in Russia, we demonstrate that's not the way it is," he told Spanish newspaper El Mundo.

"When Putin boasts of democracy, we show the true face of the country.

"Putin has lied. Not only with the case of Media-Most - he's been lying all year, since he came to power."

While some NTV staff had given in to fear of the new authorities, others understood that the country was ruled by "gangsters and fascists" and were not afraid to stand up to them, he said, advising them to "hang on in there".

Putin puppet
NTV's satirists regularly target Mr Putin, shown here in the puppet show "Kukly"

But for the powerful head of Gazprom, Rem Vyakhirev, NTV's protests amounted to a "mob action" that shamed Russia in the eyes of the world.

"Serious people, and people that we respect, have joined this mob," he said.

In Mr Vyakhirev's opinion, the journalists had "over-politicized" a simple buyout.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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