They were protesting the “illegal takeover” and barring newly-appointed management from entering NTV offices.
Amid the protest came word that U.S. media mogul Ted Turner had struck a deal with embattled NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky to buy a stake in the network and attempt to keep it from falling into government hands.
But Turner’s deal with Gusinsky does not necessarily mean the increasingly heated struggle for control of the debt-ridden independent station with gas giant Gazprom will end any time soon.
Gazprom officials yesterday fired top management at NTV and replaced the entire board of directors.
In response, nearly 400 NTV journalists hunkered down in the Moscow building all night, blocking new Gazprom-appointed management from entering. Journalists said the takeover is an attempt to silence the station’s independent voice.
On the air, NTV canceled its entertainment programming and has broadcast mostly news, with a focus on the network’s current situation. Between newscasts, the station has run a message announcing the staff protest.
Grigory Krichevsky, who heads NTV’s news service, said today journalists were still considering what to do next.
“Today the issue of a strike is not on the agenda, but I will not assume the responsibility to say it will never happen,” Krichevsky told the English-language Moscow Times.
About 100 supporters gathered outside the NTV studios despite calls from newscasters not to begin street protests. Meanwhile, journalists and politicians jumped to the station’s defense. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev raised the issue today with current Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, Gazprom officials said the journalists were overreacting. And the station’s newly-appointed general director, 34-year-old American Boris Jordan, urged calm and insisted the takeover was good for the station.
The Gazprom takeover
In order to enact sweeping personnel changes at the network, Gazprom reportedly paired its 46 percent of NTV stock with 4.4 percent held by Capital Research and Management, an American investment firm, to gain controlling interest in the firm.
But Capital Research spokesman Chuck Freadhofer told the Associated Press representatives from his company had abstained from voting in yesterday’s meeting.
It is unclear whether that would invalidate Gazprom’s decisions, as some at NTV claim. Nonetheless, Freadhofer says his company accepted the results of the meeting.
Currently, Gusinsky controls 30 percent of NTV, while 19 percent of the company’s shares are being held as collateral for loans to Gusinsky that were backed by Gazprom in 1998.
Turner has said he wants to maintain NTV’s independent editorial voice, although the deal with Gusinsky gives Turner only 30 percent of the company’s stock. He has not indicated publicly whether he would attempt to buy out some of Gazprom’s shares.
“While we are disappointed with the recent disruptive developments regarding NTV, we look forward with enthusiasm to finalizing an agreement with Gazprom… that will ensure the ongoing independence of NTV,” Turner said in a statement.
A continuing battle
The NTV takeover is the latest chapter in the saga of Gusinsky, a Russian media mogul who has faced continuing legal trouble after falling out of the Kremlin’s favor.
In the early 1990s, Gusinsky had used his ties to the Russian government to make millions in privatization deals. But since last year, his media outlets were critical of the war in Chechnya and have run exposes on alleged government corruption.
Gusinsky’s legal woes came to a head last summer, with government raids on his offices in May. He was arrested and jailed for three days in June on embezzlement charges.
Russian prosecutors allege the media mogul misrepresented the assets of his company in 1998, when he accepted loans of more than $300 million guaranteed by Gazprom. They say his companies were legally bankrupt at the time.
To get out of jail, Gusinsky agreed to sign over control of his businesses to Gazprom, but, after getting out of jail and subsequently fleeing the country, Gusinsky said the deal was struck under duress.
Now, the 48-year-old Gusinsky is under house arrest in Spain after months of self-imposed exile since a warrant for his arrest was issued in November. A legal battle over whether to extradite him to Russia to face fraud charges is still raging there.