Accepting an on-air challenge from a popular broadcaster, President Vladimir Putin met January 29 with eleven journalists from NTV. He reassured them that he wants their company to remain independent.

Media Most, the parent company of NTV, is the last major media group in Russia outside state control. Various police and special services have raided company offices at least twenty-six times since July 1999. Chief executive officer Vladimir Gusinsky is under arrest in Spain, facing possible extradition on a Russian warrant. The chief financial officer was moved last week from a single to a common cell in Moscow’s Butyrka prison. A popular NTV anchorwoman was hauled in last week for questioning. Perhaps a dozen other NTV employees have been threatened with arrest.

The charges against Media-Most and NTV officers and employees involve allegations of false statements made in connection with loans the company received from Gazprom, its largest creditor. Gazprom, the natural-gas monopoly, is Russia’s largest corporation and effectively part of the state apparatus. Gazprom controls 46 percent of Media-Most and has gone to court to gain control of another 19 percent of outstanding shares, pledged as collateral for a loan that falls due later this year and is unlikely to be repaid.

Ted Turner offered $300 million–about what Media-Most owes Gazprom–for a 25 percent stake in the company if the government would guarantee hands-off on news coverage. American investor George Soros, long a supporter of efforts to build democratic institutions in formerly communist countries, is reportedly also willing to invest in NTV.

But the Kremlin won’t play Turner’s goodwill game. Putin showed his written reply to Turner to NTV’s general director. The president told the founder of CNN that a democracy needs an “honest and balanced” media, but offered no assurance that NTV’s next owners would have editorial control. National Security Council chief Sergei Ivanov publicly rejected any notion of guarantees to Turner.

NTV and other Media-Most properties have repeatedly annoyed the Kremlin with reporting on Chechnya, on corruption, on the power of the special services and on the concentration of economic and political power in fewer and fewer hands. Though for now courageous staff keep NTV on the air, the state’s grip is tightening. The transfer of Media-Most to Gazprom or to some other Kremlin surrogate seems increasingly certain, and increasingly imminent.