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Turner Joins Russian Media Fray With Purchase Offer

April 05, 2001|MAURA REYNOLDS and SALLIE HOFMEISTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MOSCOW — Americans lined up on both sides of the fight over media freedom in Russia on Wednesday, with Ted Turner confirming an offer to buy a significant stake in the maverick NTV network, while a Los Angeles investment firm acknowledged playing a critical role in giving majority control to Kremlin loyalists.

The decisions mean that the fate of NTV, whose exposes and critical war reporting have irked Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and other Kremlin officials, may now lie largely in the hands of Americans espousing sometimes competing American values--free expression and the free market.

Media mogul Turner, who has been in talks about the fate of NTV since January, said he has signed an agreement in principle to buy 25% of the network from its embattled founder, Vladimir A. Gusinsky.

Gusinsky appeared to lose control of NTV on Tuesday, when the network's lead creditor, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom, called a renegade shareholders meeting and voted to oust the current management.

Turner's move appeared to come too late to block Gazprom's efforts to seize control of the network. But in a statement, Turner said his goal is to try to protect NTV's independence by reaching an agreement with Gazprom through which no shareholder would exercise a majority. He said his purchase of Gusinsky's shares is contingent on reaching such an agreement.

"While we are disappointed with the recent disruptive developments regarding NTV, we look forward with enthusiasm to finalizing an agreement with Gazprom and Gazprom-Media that will ensure the ongoing independence of NTV," Turner said.

Gazprom subsidiaries hold 46% of NTV's shares. On Wednesday, a Los Angeles investment firm, Capital Research & Management Co., confirmed that it sent a representative to the Gazprom meeting to represent its 4.44% stake in the network--an action that gave Gazprom the 50% representation it needed to make the meeting legal. Gusinsky holds slightly more than 30% of the network.

U.S. Firm Defends Role in Meeting

NTV journalists have questioned the legality of the Gazprom-sponsored shareholders meeting, including whether Capital was properly represented.

But Capital spokesman Chuck Freadhoff said the investment firm decided that backing Gazprom offered the best chance of protecting its investment and that its participation was fully authorized.

"We believe this consortium is the best way to ensure NTV's survival," Freadhoff said. "Our main objective is the economic viability of NTV."

Gusinsky has from time to time used NTV to pursue his political and business agendas. Nonetheless, for most Russians the network is the only real alternative to Kremlin-controlled broadcasting, and it provides the country's main source of dissenting views.

NTV journalists say the management takeover is an attempt to bring them to heel. For most of the day, they pulled all regular programming off the air except for news updates and advertising, and displayed a message declaring that the interruption was an act of protest. Behind the words, the network broadcast live footage from inside its offices--presumably so that any attempt to seize the studios would be broadcast live.

"We will continue to protest until the powers that are behind this attack give up," said Yevgeny Kiselyov, the network's lead anchor and erstwhile general director.

During the Gazprom-sponsored meeting, Kiselyov was removed as general director and replaced by an American banker, Boris Jordan, who has been a major player in Russian finance since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Jordan is an unpopular figure in Russia, where he is blamed for playing a central role in privatization auctions that awarded choice government enterprises to insiders. At the time, he worked closely with then-privatization chief Alfred Kokh, who was named NTV chairman by the Gazprom-led shareholders.

"Honestly, I had not expected the NTV shareholders--I mean those representing Gazprom--to make such an inept decision and to appoint swindlers like Jordan and Kokh," Gennady N. Seleznyov, the Communist speaker of the lower house of parliament, told reporters.

A source familiar with the meeting said that although Capital supported the management changes and provided Gazprom with the quorum it needed, it abstained from voting.

In Russia, the battle is largely seen as an attempt by Putin to use Gazprom to remove an unwelcome source of critical information and opinion.

Former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who heads a public organization supporting the network, called on Putin to rein in the gas monopoly.

"The president has more than once declared his loyalty to freedom of the press," Gorbachev said. "Today, when there is a threat to this freedom, he must intervene."

Mogul Sees Himself as a Peacemaker

Kremlin officials were silent. Putin's newly appointed interior minister, Boris Gryzlov, said only that the dispute should be "settled within the framework of the law."

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