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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

News Corp. Faces Rival Bid for Ren-TV Stake

Ren-TV, the last national television network known for independent news coverage, could soon be at the center of a bidding war, after its founders joined News Corp. in the race to buy a stake in the channel.

The founders, Irena Lesnevskaya and Dmitry Lesnevsky, are negotiating to buy back shares in the channel just a month after they sold their 30 percent stake, said a spokesman for Ren-TV and an executive at the channel's majority owner, steel giant Severstal Group.

News Corp. executives held talks with Severstal last Monday about buying a 35 percent stake in Ren-TV, which broadcasts to over 700 cities and towns.

If successful, a News Corp. bid for Ren-TV would mark the first time the global media empire has been able to get a serious foothold in Russian television. In 2002, its overtures for a stake in the satellite arm of Gazprom's NTV network, NTV-Plus, were turned down.

Ownership of Ren-TV, which is well-known for its probing, Western-style news coverage, has just changed hands. Last month, both of the channel's shareholders sold their shares. State-owned Unified Energy Systems sold its 70 percent stake in the channel to Severstal, while the Lesnevskys sold their 30 percent to Germany's RTL Group.

Reports said that the Kremlin had pushed UES into selling the stake because it feared the channel could provide support for a rival liberal candidate in the 2008 presidential elections. UES's chief Anatoly Chubais is the founder of liberal party Union of Right Forces and has often quietly pursued a political line at odds with the Kremlin.

UES denies it sold the channel because of political pressure. Severstal founder and CEO Alexei Mordashov worked on President Vladimir Putin's 2004 election campaign, reports say.

Just one month after that deal, Severstal says it is looking for a new investor in the channel. "We're talking with different investors from the market, including RTL, the Lesnevsky family itself and News Corp.," said a Severstal executive who wished to remain unidentified because of the sensitivity of the situation.

The Lesnevskys have offered to buy a 19 percent stake from Severstal for $25 million, Vedomosti reported Tuesday, citing a source close to the negotiations.

A spokeswoman for Ren-TV, where the Lesnevskys retain their senior management posts, could not confirm the sum but said the channel's founders were keen to win back partial ownership.