MOSCOW (Reuters) - Dozens of anxious journalists massed on a Moscow street on Friday to back a Russian television presenter being questioned by prosecutors investigating the financial affairs of Russia's only independent media empire.
Tatyana Mitkova, one of Russia's most glamorous presenters, had been summoned to the prosecutor's office a day after the media outlet of gas giant Gazprom announced new measures in its bid to take over the Media-Most group.
Dozens of her colleagues at NTV, flagship of Media-Most's outlets, had gathered to accompany her through central Moscow. But half an hour before her appointment, the prosecutor telephoned to say the meeting could take place at NTV's studios next to the Ostankino tower, struck by a fire last summer.
``I am not the one at issue here,'' Mitkova told her supporters. ``We will all be summoned and questioned. It doesn't matter on what pretext. This is psychological pressure and a direct threat to journalists.''
The tug-of-war for control of Media-Most, whose founder Vladimir Gusinsky is fighting extradition in Spain in connection with fraud charges, has developed into a debate on President Vladimir Putin's attitude towards a free press.
Media-Most's news organisations, particularly NTV, have frequently been critical of Kremlin policy. Putin has repeatedly said he stands for press freedom.
A senior investigator, Zigmund Lozhis, told reporters he would question Mitkova about a $70,000 loan she received from NTV, saying the matter was incomprehensible given the group's large debts. Mitkova said she knew nothing about the matter.
Gazprom-Media head Alfred Kokh said on Thursday that his company would call for an extraordinary meeting of Media-Most's shareholders to replace the board of directors, which supports Gusinsky. Gazprom-Media is a major shareholder in Media-Most.
Kokh's statement followed an order by bailiffs to freeze a disputed 19 percent stake in NTV.
He said the action at least temporarily put the majority of Media-Most's shares under Gazprom-Media's control. Media-Most insisted it retained control of the shareholders' voting rights and was contesting the action in court.
Arrests, Searches, Deals In Media Row
The row between Media-Most and Gazprom has been marked by arrests, searches and short-lived deals. It has revolved around Media-Most debts to Gazprom of more than $470 million, part of which Media-Most wants to settle by selling a blocking stake of 25 percent plus one share to a foreign investor.
CNN founder Ted Turner has expressed an interest in the stake if Putin guarantees the Kremlin will not interfere in editorial matters. Kremlin aides ruled out guarantees for Turner, saying preferences for any one investor were unfair.
Kokh tried to quell fears that Media-Most's acquisition by state-controlled Gazprom would be a blow to press freedom.
He said there would be no interference in editorial policy and personnel changes would be kept to a minimum. He also criticised the summoning of journalists for questioning.
``It is unacceptable to call in for questioning a journalist on a matter he or she had nothing to do with,'' he told NTV on Thursday evening. ``It is now my business to protect journalists. We will defend them and find the right arguments to do so..''
He saw ``no link'' between press freedom and the proceedings.
NTV general director Yevgeny Kiselyov, one of Russia's best known journalists, criticised the latest legal moves and denounced Putin as ``the main puppeteer.''
``Putin swore over and over he would not interfere in the dispute between Gazprom and Media-Most and NTV,'' he said in a statement on NTV. ``But in fact Putin is guiding Kokh. The law is on our side...We will uphold our rights by all legal means.''
Journalists backing Mitkova on the street also distrusted Putin.
``Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin), please find the time to meet the people who work at NTV and hear us out,'' said talk show host Svetlana Sorokina. ``It is easy to smear us. We want to hear more about your principles of democracy and press freedom.''