GAZPROM, Russias statecontrolled gas giant, is to buy Izvestia,
the respected daily newspaper, in what is seen as a move by the Kremlin to extend its media controls to the printed press.
The gas monopolys media arm, Gazprom-Media, said yesterday that it was in talks with Vladimir Potanin, the Russian metals tycoon, on purchasing his 50 per cent stake in Izvestia.
The negotiations on this issue are nearing completion, and we will officially announce the deal within the next few days, said Anton Sergeyev, a Gazprom-Media spokesman.
Human rights groups and liberal politicians decried the move, which would give the Kremlin control over a relatively independent national newspaper with a circulation of more than 200,000.
Since Vladimir Putin became President in 2000, the Kremlin has steadily reintroduced central control over the national media, often through Gazprom, despite growing criticism from Western governments.
Until now, it has largely ignored the print media, whose readership is small and mostly urban, to focus on television by far the most powerful means of reaching 140 million people across 11 time zones.
But analysts say the Kremlin is increasingly anxious to manipulate public opinion in the run-up to a presidential election in 2008, when Mr Putin is due to step down.
Its a purchase with a political character, said Raf Shakirov, a former Izvestia editor forced to resign last year after the Kremlin criticised his coverage of the Beslan school siege. A complete takeover of television has already happened, he told Ekho Moskvy radio. Now they are going after the newspapers so that the picture is finished.
Political analysts suggested that Mr Potanin, one of Russias richest men, was ditching the newspaper to avoid getting on the wrong side of the Kremlin. The proposed deal was announcedtwo days after Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil magnate, was jailed for nine years after what was seen as a Kremlin-orchestrated show trial to crush a political rival.
Founded in 1917, Izvestia was known for decades as a conservative mouthpiece for the Communist Party, but in recent years it established a reputation for balanced, thorough and sometimes probing journalism. It was the first Russian newspaper, for example, to cast doubt on the Governments claim that 350 hostages were being held in the school in Beslan. The actual number was more than 1,000.
Izvestia has also trodden close to the line with its coverage of the Khodorkovsky saga, publishing a lengthy sympathetic feature on his birthday last year, for instance. It recently began featuring an insert of English language stories from The New York Times another potential source of criticism for the Kremlin.
Gazprom was first used by the state to wrest control of the NTV television station from the exiled media tycoon owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, in 2001. Since then, NTV has toned down its once highly critical coverage of the Kremlin especially over Chechnya and taken several live political chat shows off the air despite their high ratings.
The Gazprom-Media spokesman denied reports that it was planning to replace Vladimir Borodin, Izvestias editor-in-chief, with Oleg Kuzin, who is editor-in-chief of another newspaper, Tribuna.
Nevertheless, Izvestias readers and reporters fear that their new owner will curb their editorial independence.
WHO OWNS RUSSIA'S NEWSPAPERS