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Russian TV takeover sparks protest

NTV sit in
NTV journalists held an all night vigil inside their studios  

MOSCOW, Russia -- Journalists at Russia's only independent television network are protesting against a takeover by the state-run gas giant Gazprom.

The journalists at NTV, which broadcasts nationwide, cancelled all entertainment programming from Wednesday in what they called an act of civil disobedience.

NTV has been the subject of a vicious takeover battle, which the station's supporters say is aimed at silencing its independence voice, which is often critical of President Vladimir Putin.

On Wednesday morning, NTV viewers saw a caption of white letters on the background of a broadcaster's chair in an empty studio.

The caption said: "In protest at the illegal seizure of NTV, only news programmes will be broadcast."

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CNN's Jill Dougherty reports on the proposed sale of Russia's NTV to CNN founder Ted Turner

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NTV Editor Designate Vladimir Kulstkov: NTV is on the brink of bankruptcy

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NTV's Yevgeny Kiselyov: Putin wants the channel under government

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The station was broadcasting news bulletins every half hour. The white NTV logo at the bottom of the screen was covered with a red seal reading "Protest." Advertising was being broadcast normally.

E-mail messages to its Web site were also flashed on screen. "NTV is cool" and "NTV will live!" were some of the messages.

About 100 employees worked through the night at the station's studios at the Ostankino Tower broadcasting complex in northern Moscow. Staff barricaded one of the two entrances to the editorial offices.

The station continued to broadcast in the pre-dawn hours on Wednesday when it usually goes off air.

Several parliament members from the liberal Yabloko party joined the employees at the studio.

The Communist speaker of the lower house of parliament, Gennady Seleznyov, vowed that the chamber would "not stand on the sidelines," the Interfax news agency reported.

However, attempts to put the NTV dispute on the agenda of both houses of parliament on Wednesday failed.

The station is often critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and its owner Vladimir Gusinsky is fighting extradition from Spain on fraud charges.

Gusinsky has signed an outline deal giving most of his holdings to U.S. media mogul and CNN founder, Ted Turner. CNN and its parent companies have no connection with the deal.

On Tuesday, Gazprom used a controversial shareholders meeting to pack NTV's board with loyalists and appoint Boris Jordan, a U.S. banker prominent in a controversial 1990s privatisation programme, to run the network.

Gazprom's media chief Alfred Kokh -- who was made chairman of the NTV board -- has also replaced NTV director-general Yevgeny Kiselyov .

Gazprom called Tuesday's meeting after it said it had gained a de facto majority of NTV's shares, because a key 19 percent block of Gusinsky's shares held as collateral against a loan had been frozen by a court.

Yevgeny Kiselyov
Yevgeny Kiselyov on the set of his widely watched news show  

The boardroom coup pushed NTV founder Gusinsky off the board. He says fraud charges against him are part of the Kremlin campaign to seize the only national TV station outside state control.

The deposed team of NTV managers and key presenters held a late-night meeting inside the building. Earlier, six police vans with about 30 officers had parked outside.

The station's journalists, in a statement read out on the air, described the shareholders' meeting, called by Gazprom-Media, as "illegal."

They said: "We understand that the final aim of the meeting, like all of the actions of the authorities against NTV, is to establish full political control over us."

More than 10,000 NTV supporters gathered at the weekend in one of the largest demonstrations Moscow has seen in years. Organisers said a similar protest could be held this weekend.

Among those condemning the takeover was former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev who urged President Vladimir Putin to defend free speech.

"Everything that is going on today is nonsense, a challenge to all society. It diminishes us all," said Gorbachev, who is head of an NTV standards body.

"I hope the time has come when the president will directly and firmly come out, in the spirit that he has used in conversations and in public, in defence of the mass media."

Reuters contributed to this report.



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