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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Schroeder Ducks NTV Row, Defections Hurt Turner Bid

NTV staff's hopes of support from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder faded on Tuesday, as defections from the embattled independent network risked undermining a white knight bid by CNN founder Ted Turner.

In an early morning radio call-in, Schroeder tactfully sidestepped direct criticism of his host, President Vladimir Putin, over last week's contested takeover of Russia's only independent national television network NTV.

"My understanding of a free press is that you have to separate property on one side and an understanding of journalism on the other," Schroeder said through a translator on Echo Moskvy, a sister radio to NTV.

"I have always understood that journalism is the freedom, the democratic freedom, of a country and in that I agree with the president," he added.

Schroeder, who discussed NTV with Putin on Monday, then said Russia needed media to "inform the people and monitor the authorities". But his comments fell short of the direct pressure on Putin NTV staff had hoped for.

Putin, who on Monday broke a weeklong silence on the case, pledged himself to free speech but said he could not intervene in a purely commercial dispute that a court should resolve.

"As far as expressing one's opinion is concerned, freedom of the press etc, then it must be guaranteed," Putin said in a television interview broadcast late on Monday.

"But it can only be guaranteed under one condition: the creation of acceptable economic conditions for a free press."

State-dominated gas giant Gazprom ousted NTV founder and key aides in a boardroom coup branded illegal by the network's staff. Thousands have protested against the takeover in the biggest street protests of Putin's presidency.

Moscow's Arbitration Court on Tuesday set a May 10 date to hear a legal challenge to the contested shareholder meeting, NTV spokesman Dmitry Ostalsky said. A dispute over management changes ordered by Gazprom will be debated a week later.

NTV's journalists and liberals have painted the station's fate as a litmus test of freedom of speech under Putin, a former KGB spy and domestic intelligence service chief.



STREAM OF DEFECTIONS FROM NTV

After presenting a united front at the start of the protest, defections from the channel have begun to increase. The Washington Post said that could undermine Turner's bid to buy into the troubled channel and maintain its independence.

"If this thing blows up in the next two weeks, then there really isn't anything to buy," the paper quoted Turner spokesman Brian Faw as saying.

The Financial Times reported that Australian-born media baron Rupert Murdoch has rebuffed attempts to draw him into bidding for NTV. Gazprom was unavailable for comment.

Top news presenter Tatyana Mitkova and commentator Leonid Parfyonov, who resigned at the weekend, were followed on Monday by 22 other journalists, said NTV's Internet web site (www.ntv.ru).

A presenter of NTV's criminal affairs program, whose 20-strong staff quit en masse, said live on air that he and the others could not find a "common language" with NTV's leadership.

Putin cast NTV's bosses in a bad light, noting that Russian prosecutors wanted to extradite NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky from Spain on fraud allegations. Gusinsky says the charges are part of a political campaign to seize his media outlets.

NTV's Ostalsky accused Putin of telling lies "on a scale worthy of Goebbels" about the debts of Gusinsky's media empire, a reference to the Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels.