MOSCOW — Tired and defiant journalists at Russia's only independent nationwide television network canceled entertainment programming Wednesday to protest a takeover move widely seen as a Kremlin attempt to bring NTV to heel.
The rebellion came after state-run gas giant Gazprom purged NTV of its leadership Tuesday. Gazprom's media subsidiary, which holds 46 percent of the shares in NTV, teamed up with a small, U.S.-based company to amass just over half the shares and vote through the sweeping changes.
Gazprom's move to take over NTV came as U.S. media mogul Ted Turner reportedly agreed in principle to purchase NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky's shares in the network, although it would only be a minority share.
CNN, which Turner heads, cited unnamed sources as saying that Turner's representatives had signed an "outline deal" with Gusinsky. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the deal was worth about $225 million to buy out Gusinsky's holding company, Media-Most, quoting sources close to an investor group led by Turner.
Gusinsky's lawyer in Spain, Domingo Plazas Ruiz, denied that a deal had been signed. But Yevgeny Kiselyov, the general director ousted by the Gazprom team, said that a tentative deal had been reached but declined to comment further.
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev — the head of an advisory committee to NTV — signaled his approval, telling a news conference that while he would like NTV to remain a Russian channel, the Turner move is "not the worst option."
It is unclear what impact a Turner-Gusinsky deal would have on the tense situation surrounding NTV. While NTV journalists say they hope turner would safeguard their independence, Turner has long been friendly with whoever sits in the Kremlin.
Gazprom representatives tried to justify the takeover in financial terms, saying the company had been hemorrhaging money and would never be able to make good on its loans. NTV had $70 million in losses and $127 million in debts, they said.
However, the move was viewed as a Kremlin attempt to harness the network, which is known for enterprising and often-critical reporting on an array of problems ranging from the wars in Chechnya to the deterioration of social services and infrastructure.
NTV journalists accused President Vladimir Putin of being behind the takeover, though he has not spoken publicly on the dispute. The Paris-based press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders and the European Union condemned the takeover, as did prominent politicians, including Gorbachev.
"I am convinced that preserving an independent, open, serious channel such as NTV is a public task and our public responsibility," Gorbachev said during an emotional live talk show on the controversy.
"I think you chose the absolutely correct position," Gorbachev told NTV journalists Wednesday.
NTV, which usually goes off the air in the early morning hours, broadcast overnight and through the pre-dawn hours Wednesday, and it interspersed newscasts every 30 minutes with scenes from its offices, where journalists milled about after a sleepless night. The white NTV logo at the bottom of the screen was covered with a red seal reading "Protest."
"The employees of NTV await the representatives of Gazprom-Media, but do not intend to give in to them," said a statement released by the channel early Wednesday.
Several parliament members from the liberal Yabloko party joined about 100 employees who worked through the night at the station's studios at the Ostankino broadcasting complex in northern Moscow. Communist speaker of the lower house of parliament, Gennady Seleznyov, vowed that the chamber would "not stand on the sidelines." However, attempts to put the NTV dispute on the agenda of both houses of parliament on Wednesday failed.
At the shareholders' meeting on Tuesday, which NTV called illegal, Gazprom-Media chief Alfred Kokh was appointed new chairman of NTV's board, replacing Gusinsky, the tycoon who founded the station and its parent holding company Media-Most. Boris Jordan, an American investment banker of Russian descent, was named general director in Kiselyov's place.
Gusinsky is one of several well-connected tycoons who amassed fortunes in shady privatization deals in the 1990s. Russian prosecutors want him extradited from Spain, where he owns a home, to face charges that he overstated Media-Most's assets to win loan guarantees from Gazprom. Last week, Gusinsky was freed on bail by a Spanish court, an indication the court would reject Russia's request.
Both Kokh and Jordan were involved in disputed privatization deals of state assets in the 1990s, and NTV's senior journalists have said they would not work for either man.