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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thousands Take to Streets for NTV

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Tens of thousands of people rallied across the country this weekend in support of indebted NTV television and its fight to ward off a takeover by creditor Gazprom.

The demonstrations followed negotiations by a conciliatory commission of representatives from NTV and Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of state-controlled Gazprom, which collapsed after just 45 minutes Friday.

NTV is battling a bid from Gazprom-Media to replace the management of NTV with its own team, which was appointed at a controversial shareholders meeting last Tuesday. NTV, which says the takeover is being orchestrated by a Kremlin weary of criticism, calls the meeting illegal and its journalists are standing by the ousted managers. Gazprom-Media says it just wants to collect on its debts.

Some 10,000 to 15,000 people braved rain showers and chilly temperatures to protest Saturday outside NTV's offices near the Ostankino television tower. Clutching umbrellas and banners reading "NTV is protection from lies," supporters applauded as politicians and NTV staff took to a covered stage to praise embattled NTV general director Yevgeny Kiselyov and slam the Kremlin for its silence about the takeover battle.

Click here to read our special report on the Struggle for Media-MOST.

"Our network has always been like a bone in the throat of the authorities," said NTV war correspondent Yevgeny Kirichenko. "Now it seems the Kremlin's patience has run out."

"Thank you for reminding us that we're not alone," he added to the cheers of the crowd. "With Kiselyov, we will go to the very end."

The Obshchaya Gazeta newspaper published on Saturday a special edition about NTV's plight that was handed out at the rally and at other demonstrations across the country. About 5,000 to 6,000 people attended a protest in St. Petersburg on Sunday. In Minsk, an opposition leader was arrested for organizing an unsanctioned rally in support of NTV.

Back in Moscow, Kiselyov told the rally that CNN was broadcasting the protest worldwide, lifting the spirits of the rain-drenched crowd.

"Now, the whole world is watching," said Maria Martinkus, a 20-year-old university student attending with her parents. "[President Vladimir] Putin will be forced to care about what is going on."

On Friday, the first — and participants said final — meeting of the conciliatory commission met at about 2 p.m. Before 3 p.m., both sides threw in the towel.

According to Gazprom-Media, the journalists immediately set an ultimatum demanding that new NTV chairman Alfred Kokh and his team sign a letter to Putin and the Supreme Court calling for a speedy decision on the validity of Tuesday's shareholders meeting.

"Gazprom-Media is confused by this attempt by NTV representatives to circumvent normal legal procedures," Gazprom-Media spokeswoman Aelita Yefimova was quoted by Interfax as saying. "We consider this demand to be a provocation."

NTV countered that its main goal is to institute a three-month moratorium on any management changes. Such a proposal was first brought up by NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky early last week.

Meanwhile, media magnate Ted Turner has encouraged NTV journalists to continue working while he negotiates a deal that will allow him to purchase a stake in the company. He struck a deal with Gusinsky last week under which he would take the stake provided he also could reach a deal with Gazprom-Media.

"It is my sincere hope that the journalists and employees of NTV — who comprise the true value of this company — remain patient and calm while we work to finalize a transaction that will ensure the long-term independence of their network," Turner said in a statement released Friday.

Gazprom-Media currently owns 46 percent of NTV and holds another 19 percent as collateral for a Credit Suisse First Boston loan coming due in July.

Turner's bankers from Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank, representing Gazprom-Media, met Thursday to begin negotiations.

"We have come away with a lot of information that needs to be digested," said Brian Faw, Turner's spokesman. "We hope to meet again in the coming week."

Talks are going "normally," Kokh, who also heads Gazprom-Media, said on RTR television's "Zerkalo" program Sunday. He said he has received several offers from Turner and has until Tuesday to respond to the latest one.

"In three to four months, we will either have a deal or we won't," Kokh said.

Under negotiation is the purchase of the 19 percent stake in NTV that Gazprom holds as collateral to the loan due in July, according to a source close to the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The source said Turner intends to buy 11 percent of NTV from Gusinsky and 19 percent from Gazprom when it takes possession of the stake. Gusinsky would still own 20 percent of NTV but would give Turner voting power.

While Turner has agreed with Gusinsky in principle on the deal, he has not signed it, the source said. "It only has Gusinsky's signature on it. Turner would never put his signature on anything before an agreement of all parties concerned is reached."

"The deal involves Gusinsky, Gazprom and Turner," Turner spokesman Faw confirmed by telephone from New York. "Turner is determined to sign it when all three parties agree."

Getting an agreement from Gazprom on Turner's terms may prove problematic. Gazprom has repeatedly said that it will sell the 19 percent on an open tender organized by Deutsche Bank. According to the source, Turner wants to buy the shares directly from Gazprom at the minimum price set in a Nov. 17 contract between Gazprom and Media-MOST — $61 million.

If Turner gets his way, he would end up owning about 30 percent of NTV, Gazprom would hold about 46 percent, Gusinsky 20 percent and the U.S.-based Capital Research Management mutual fund 4.5 percent. However, voting power would be divided up among a consortium of investors that Turner hopes to attract to the company.

However, Kokh said he disapproved of the way Turner is running the show, saying that the American doesn't understand the "reality of Russian politics" and that a statement issued Thursday by the U.S. State Department was only making matters worse.

The State Department called for a legal resolution to the struggle for control of NTV and, while cautiously approving Turner's involvement, said its journalists needed to maintain editorial control.

"The United States is convinced that independent media are essential to democracy in Russia as in any other nation," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

In response to the State Department, lawmakers on Friday submitted a bill to the State Duma limiting foreign ownership in national television channels to 25 percent.

Other governments have also expressed concern about the NTV standoff.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der vowed to raise the issue of NTV and its implications for press freedom when he meets with Putin in St. Petersburg this week.

The Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organization, is calling on Russia to protect press freedoms.

"I want to stress the crucial importance of government-independent media in any society and, even more, that of nationwide television in an emerging democracy such as Russia," Lord Russell-Johnston, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said in a statement.

While the dispute in Moscow simmers on, a couple of prominent NTV reporters have broken ranks.

Journalist Leonid Parfyonov, host of the popular "Rossiskaya Imperia" program, announced his resignation to Kiselyov late last week in a letter that said the general director is doing everything possible to provoke a police raid on NTV offices.

Parfyonov left to become a special correspondent for the Kommersant newspaper.

"On our eighth floor, from the window where the NTV flag flutters, there is already no freedom and no speech," Parfyonov said in the letter, published Friday on Kommersant's web site. "People are like cannon fodder to you, young men are hostages because they don't know any life other than how to be tied to 'Itogi' by a umbilical cord. What you're doing is corrupting the youth."

"Itogi" is a popular weekly current affairs program hosted by Kiselyov.

Another NTV host, Tatyana Mitkova, also said she was leaving.