Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 20

President Vladimir Putin met yesterday with eleven journalists from NTV, the television channel of Vladimir Gusinsky’s embattled Media-Most group. Yesterday’s meeting came to pass after one NTV journalist, Svetlana Sorokina, host of the channel’s political talk show, Glas Naroda, asked the president on the air for a meeting to discuss the Prosecutor General’s Office’s charges that NTV journalists and others received no-interest loans worth tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars each from Imidzh Bank, a Gusinsky-linked institution. NTV news reader Tat’yana Mitkova was questioned at the Prosecutor General’s Office last week concerning a US$70,000 loan she received in 1994 to buy a Moscow apartment. NTV, Media-Most and the journalists themselves charged that this latest probe–like the one aimed at Media-Most founder Vladimir Gusinsky, who is currently under house arrest in Spain awaiting possible extradition to Russia to face large-scale fraud charges–is politically motivated. Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov yesterday denied charges of political bias in his investigation of the NTV journalists, saying it was connected only to the case of alleged fraud against Gusinsky. For his part, Putin told the NTV journalists–who included Sorokina, Mitkova and Yevgeny Kiselev, NTV’s chief and host of its weekly news analysis program Itogi–yesterday that he wanted to see NTV remain independent and that he had sent Ted Turner a letter supporting the CNN founder’s plan to invest in the Russian media market. Turner is leading a group of investors who have offered to buy a 25-percent share in NTV in order to protect its independence. George Soros said yesterday that he would join that group. The Kremlin, however, has refused to give Turner any guarantee that it will not try to influence NTV’s editorial line or simply close the station down, and Putin reportedly did not mention such guarantees in his letter to Turner (Moscow Times, January 30; Russian agencies, Gazeta.ru, January 29).

Gazprom, Media-Most’s main creditor, has sued it with the aim of getting possession of a 19-percent stake in NTV which Media-Most put up as collateral for a loan guaranteed by Gazprom which comes due later this year. Gazprom claims that Media-Most forfeited this stake by violating the terms of an agreement the two sides reached last November about paying off Media-Most’s debts. The Moscow Arbitration Court froze the 19-percent NTV stake last week pending a hearing set for February 14, but there is a dispute over whether Media-Most retains voting rights on that stake. Alfred Kokh, head of Gazprom-Media, claimed last week that Media-Most had lost its voting rights on the stake, meaning that Gazprom now effectively controls 81 percent of NTV. Kokh said that Gazprom would nominate a new board of directors for NTV made up of nine members, five of whom would be from Gazprom, including Gazprom chief Rem Vyakhirev, along with Vladimir Kulistikov, the former NTV deputy director who is now head of the state’s RIA news agency. Gazprom, which currently holds a 46-percent stake of NTV, is itself 38-percent state owned. A number of NTV’s top journalists have said they will leave the channel if it is taken over by Gazprom–something which looks increasingly likely (Gazeta.ru, January 29; Moscow Times, January 26).

While Putin was meeting with the NTV journalists yesterday, Anton Titov, Media-Most’s finance chief, was moved from a private cell in Moscow’s notorious Butyrka prison to a common cell holding thirty people. NTV called Titov’s transfer an attempt to put pressure on him, noting that some human rights activists have charged that the conditions in Butyrka, as it is popularly known, amount to torture (NTV, January 29). Titov was arrested and jailed on January 15 while being interrogated in connection with the fraud case against Gusinsky. Both men are accused of having defrauded Gazprom by taking out loans from it for Media-Most.