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Rebels' Refuge Probed

Two days after taking in defiant former employees of NTV television, leaders of a second-tier Russian television network on Monday found themselves facing possible jail time for tax evasion.

In another blow for Russia's independent media, the publisher of the respected daily newspaper Segodnya announced Monday that the next day's edition would not appear.

Segodnya and NTV, along with the TNT television network that took in dissident NTV journalists, were connected with the Media-Most holding company.

But the state-connected natural gas giant Gazprom acquired substantial shares in both NTV and the publishing house that put out Segodnya — enough to exert control over the operations.

Moscow tax police charged Yelena Metlikina, chief accountant of the TNT network, with tax evasion by conspiracy, which carries a sentence of up to seven years, said Pavel Astakhov, a lawyer for Media-Most, which owns TNT.

Investigators said they would charge TNT director Pavel Korchagin with the same crime when he returns from a business trip later this week, according to Astakhov.

On Saturday, TNT took in journalists from NTV, the only nonstate nationwide television station, after they left in protest of a takeover by Gazprom. Dissident NTV journalists have been broadcasting news on TNT, which has a much smaller reach than NTV.

Media-Most said the charges were political.

"By putting pressure on the leadership of TNT, the authorities are trying to keep the former NTV team off the air for good," Media-Most said in a statement.

The conflict around NTV has sparked concern in the West about media freedom in Russia and that concern is likely to grow with the halt of Segodnya. The printing of the paper was ordered stopped by Dmitri Biryukov, head of the Sem Dnei publishing company and editor-in-chief Mikhail Berger was sacked, but the paper was not formally closed.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday that the NTV situation "certainly has a political motivation and that its preservation is important for the future of freedom of the press in Russia."

On Monday, Richard Wright, the head of the European Commission's mission to Russia, said media freedom had been had worsened by events surrounding NTV and that the issue could be raised at an EU-Russia summit planned for May in Moscow.

Astakhov said the TNT tax case, which was opened in September, had been running out of steam and investigators had said they would close it. Last week, tax authorities lost an arbitration suit seeking to dissolve TNT in connection with its alleged tax debts.

The tax police allege TNT evaded taxes of 191,000 rubles ($6,500). Astakhov said TNT never owed the 191,000 rubles, but paid that sum anyway in order to avoid legal conflicts.

Media-Most, which owns a 49 percent stake in NTV, lost control over the station two weeks ago when Gazprom teamed up with another shareholder to install new management. Gazprom and Biyukov together hol a 50-percent-plus-one-share majority in Sem Dnei, with Media-Most holding the rest.

Gazprom said the motivation for taking control of NTV was financial, but Media-Most says the gas company acted on behalf of the Kremlin to silence an often critical media outlet. Segodnya also reported critically on the Kremlin and on the war in Chechnya.

Putin has refused to intervene in what he says is a purely commercial dispute the courts should resolve. Kremlin aides reject any talk of a political campaign against Media-Most.

Early Saturday morning, the newly installed NTV general director, American banker Boris Jordan, changed the security service at NTV's offices. Some of the most vocal NTV employees who had spoken out against the takeover were barred from the offices, and many others resigned in protest.

There are conflicting reports about how many of NTV's original 1,200 personnel had left. The new managers said some 40 people, including 10 reporters, had offered their resignations.

But Tatyana Blinova, spokeswoman for the ousted NTV leadership, said more than 350 employees, including 85 percent of the journalistic staff, had resigned as of Monday.

Ousted general director Yevgeny Kiselyov has accepted an offer to head another station, TV6, and says he wants to bring the entire former NTV staff to with him.

Not everyone is happy at such a prospect. The head of TV-6's press service said he would quit if Kiselyov took over, and the future role of the station's existing staff remains unclear if the NTV rebels join the station.

TV6 is owned by tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who had close ties to Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin and was once a bitter rival of Vladimir Gusinsky, who owns Media-Most and who is fighting extradition from Spain on fraud charges.

Recently, Berezovsky has fallen out of favor with the Kremlin and has gone into self-imposed exile in London, saying it would be dangerous for him to return to Russia.

On Monday, police said they were investigating a traffic accident involving Sergei Dorenko, a former television anchor at state-controlled ORT, which was previously controlled by Berezovsky.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said police were looking into allegations that Dorenko ran his motorcycle into two pedestrians on Sunday after one of them remarked on his reckless driving.

In a telephone interview with NTV, Dorenko denied he had attacked anyone and said the allegations were part of a smear campaign against journalists who have supported the former NTV staff.

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