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Russian outcry at loss of independent voice

Shareholders Tuesday named pro-Kremlin board at the only non-state-run network.

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A standoff is quickly escalating over the fate of NTV, Russia's last independent nationwide television network.

At stake, say NTV journalists and their supporters, are not only hard-won press freedoms, but freedom for all Russians.

"The strategy is to fight," says station news director Gregory Kritchevsky.

Managers at the station, whose coverage was often critical of the government, were fired on Tuesday in what Mr. Kritchevsky describes as an illegitimate shareholders' meeting called by the state-run natural-gas giant Gazprom.

Police have declared the growing rally outside NTV's Ostankino offices, in northwest Moscow, illegal. A police attempt to enter the building at midday yesterday was repulsed.

"We are witnessing the final stage of the state monopolization of the media," says Pavel Gutionov, secretary of the Union of Russian Journalists.

"The authorities want to stifle all critical voices and ensure that only official information goes into the formation of public opinion. Therefore, NTV is the last bastion of Russia's free media. As it goes, so goes the country," he says.

Call for more protests

The union has called a mass protest on Red Square for Saturday. A similar rally in Pushkin Square last weekend drew some 10,000 to 20,000 demonstrators.

The studios have been the scene of barricades and battles more than once over the past decade as various political factions struggled to control the facility, the chief broadcasting portal to the nation's 146 million people.

Dozens died amid gun battles here in October 1993, when former President Boris Yeltsin squared off against his opponents in parliament. Journalists defending NTV today eschew any use of force, but insist the issue is the same: the fate of freedom in Russia.

The real goal: NTV parent

The current conflict has been brewing for more than year, as Gazprom maneuvered, with the backing of Russian courts and police, to seize control of Media Most, NTV's parent company.

The moves have involved two arrests of NTV-founder Vladimir Gusinsky - whom Russia is trying to extradite from Spain to face charges of embezzlement - and no fewer than 28 armed-police raids on Media Most's Moscow headquarters.

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