Deal to decide NTV future
ST PETERSBURG, Russia -- The future of NTV television's independence hangs in the balance as its new owner considers an offer by U.S. media mogul Ted Turner to buy into the station.
Last week NTV -- Russia's only independent nationwide television network -- was taken over in a boardroom coup by state-dominated gas giant Gazprom, which ousted its founder Vladimir Gusinsky.
At present, Gusinsky owns 49 percent of NTV and Gazprom owns 46 percent.
But the gas company says it controls the station because Gusinsky's share includes a 19 percent stake that was frozen by a court due to outstanding debts to Gazprom.
Turner, founder of CNN, later announced he had struck a deal to buy an NTV stake from Gusinsky, but said he could ensure its independence only if he reached a deal with Gazprom as well.
The head of Gazprom's media arm said his firm would reply on Tuesday to Turner's offer to buy into the station, but a final deal could take months.
Alexander Kokh told RTR television his firm was studying a proposal Turner had made last week.
"Our lawyers will give their answer on Tuesday," he said. "After two or three months we will be able to say whether we have reached a deal or not."
While the business negotiations continue, the public has given their support to the station and its staff, who temporarily went on strike amid fears for their editorial integrity.
Journalists at NTV have called for the public to back them against Gazprom. They say the future of free media in Russia is at stake.
On Sunday up to 4,000 people gathered in St Petersburg in support of what the station's journalists call a fight against the Kremlin to save free media.
The rally, in the city's Troitskaya Square, came a day after a similar gathering in Moscow attracted 10,000.
In St Petersburg, people held posters declaring "No TV without NTV!" and "We won't give NTV to Putin!" denouncing what the station's reporters say is President Vladimir Putin's leading role in a crackdown on independent media.
Parliamentary deputy Sergei Popov told the crowd: "What they are doing to NTV is the road to repression. But we will not go down that road."
Igor Artemyev, from the Yabloko party, said: "For us, it is important that NTV is not just an information provider but expresses our way of thinking, and in this way it has become our political leader."
NTV believes Gazprom wants to silence critical reporting on government corruption, human rights abuses and the war in Chechnya.
But Gazprom insists it wants only to recover loans it guaranteed on Gusinsky's behalf. Gusinsky is currently being held in Spain fighting extradition to Russia on fraud charges.
Kokh said Turner had made two previous offers.
Gazprom had agreed to the first offer, which would have stripped Gusinsky of all shares and given no single shareholder control of NTV, but had rejected the second, which would have allowed Gusinsky to keep a stake and put Turner in control.
Kokh said Turner's latest offer was "more like the first proposal than the second," but gave no further details.
He also said Turner was not committed to buying shares from Gusinsky unless his deal with Gazprom succeeds.
Reuters contributed to this report.
New rally in support of NTV
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