Journalists Say Nyet To NTV

Three more journalists resigned from embattled Russian NTV Monday, sparking an angry public debate about the fate of the network. They joined two others who had resigned over the weekend.

The network's journalists have been protesting since the April 2 takeover of the country's only independent television network by the state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom.

They say Gazprom is acting as a puppet of the Kremlin, and accuses it of attempting to silence NTV criticism of the war in Chechnya, high-level corruption, and restrictions on various freedoms.

Gazprom says it's solely motivated by finance and is seeking to recover loan payments from an earlier deal with NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky.

Nearly 5,000 people turned out in support of NTV on Sunday in St. Petersburg.

While journalists had pledged to remain united in their fight against Gazprom, several have broken ranks.

Monday, NTV's internet site confirmed the resignations of correspondent Andrei Pivovarov, presenter Natalya Zabuzova and war reporter Anton Grishin. They joined commentator Leonid Parfyonov and presenter Tatyana Mitkova who quit earlier.

They left amid increasingly shrill rhetoric. One newspaper, Moskovsky Komsomolets, said the protests had deteriorated into a "suicide on the air."

Parfyonov, who announced his resignation Friday, wrote a bitter letter accusing managing director Yevgeny Kiselyov of using NTV staff as "cannon fodder" and abolishing freedom of speech at the network in his fight to keep control.

The Russian daily, Kommersant, published a furious open letter by Kiselyov in response to Parfyono, denouncing his cowardice, narcissism and "banal betrayal."

"The resignations of Mitkova and Parfyono are genuine treason," said one newspapers quoting late night presenter Vladimir Kara-Murza. "I was on the barricades in 1991 and 1993 (during coup attempts). My friends were killed, but we stood to the end for freedom."

Putin ended a weeklong silence over the situation Monday, by saying he wanted the matter resolved in court.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, head of an NTV advisory panel and one of the station's most public backers, said that in a meeting, Putin had assured him that he believed press freedom was "very important for the functioning of our democratic institutions."

"The president is rather definite and I agree, that as long as there is a lack of clarity or disagreement with court ruling, they should put the issue back before the courts and let the courts look at the situation all over again," Gorbachev said.

In a cabinet meeting broadcast on NTV, Putin also ordered Gazprom to improve its financial processes. The conglomerate has come under scrutiny for some questionable accounting procedures.
"I'd like to draw attention to measures necessary to … increase transparency and efficiency at Gazprom," he said. "I would like work in this shere to assume a new dynamic.

Later, Putin was to meet with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has said that he would raise the issue of NTV and independence with the president, but that it would not dominate his visit.

And Gazprom confirmed that it would reply to an offer by CNN founder Ted Turner to buy into the station on Tuesday.

© MMI Viacom Internet Services Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters Ltd. contributed to this report