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The Russian government is making moves to control the country's news media.
The hostile takeover of Russia's only private, national television network, NTV, by the Kremlin-controlled company Gazprom has shocked the nation and the world. Coming just months after the state wrested control of the ORT television channel from wayward oligarch Boris Berezovsky in February, the absorption of NTV means nothing less than a Soviet-style de facto state monopoly of national broadcasting.
The Kremlin stubbornly insists that the NTV conflict is merely a business dispute. NTV owner Vladimir Gusinsky -- whose Media-MOST group also owns the respected daily newspaper Segodnya, the newsweekly Itogi and the radio network Ekho Moskvy -- fell into debt to Gazprom and now must pay the price.
Gusinsky and other observers disagree and see the assault on NTV as purely politically motivated, a payback for Gusinsky's support of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov in the 1999-2000 jostling for the presidential election. They point out that state-controlled television stations RTR and ORT are even more hopelessly in debt than NTV. They point to a number of questionable court decisions, the harassment of journalists by prosecutors and a deal signed last June by Press Minister Mikhail Lesin trading Gusinsky's personal freedom for his Media-MOST shares.
No one knows for certain how the conflict will end. It has certainly made strange bedfellows. Berezovsky, who was once Gusinsky's deadly rival, has offered a $50 million loan and other help to keep NTV going. CNN founder Ted Turner -- acting in his private capacity, not as vice chairman of AOL-Time Warner -- has been feverishly negotiating the purchase of Gazprom's NTV stake. And Mikhail Gorbachev, father of glasnost and generally a supporter or Putin, heads IN NTV's vs public defense committee. However, if the first 13 months of Putin's reign are any indication, NTV's fate is sealed. Putin's media policy has had nothing whatsoever to do with business and everything to do with politics. …