LONDON (CNNfn) - Ted Turner, the CNN founder, is in talks to buy 25 percent of Russian independent television network NTV, published reports said Wednesday.|
Negotiations are close to completion but any deal over the controversial network, founded by self-exiled Russian media baron Vladimir Gusinsky, would require the approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Wall Street Journal said.
Rupert Murdoch, whose media holdings include Sky Global, is also vying to buy a stake in Russia's biggest independent television station, sources familiar with the negotiations told Reuters Tuesday.
Russian prosecutors again raided offices of NTV investor Media-Most Wednesday and company officials said the move was part of a plot to scuttle its search for a Western partner.
NTV, the prize asset in Gusinsky's Media-Most empire, ran into trouble with the Kremlin over its critical coverage of Russia's 16-month war in Chechnya.
Gusinsky has said he wants to sell a 19 percent stake in the television station to an overseas investor, the WSJ reported, saying he believes the network is being muzzled by the Kremlin, although Putin has said Gusinsky's troubles relate to his business dealings.
A Media-Most spokeswoman said the raid on its Moscow offices had prevented its chief negotiator from flying to London for talks on the NTV sale and was aimed at preventing Media-Most finding an investor without Kremlin approval.
Last month, Gusinsky ceased to be the majority shareholder in NTV, turning over a large stake to the state-dominated natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, to cancel debts of $211 million that it had guaranteed on his behalf.
The Media-Most spokeswoman said Gazprom-Media wanted greater control over the choice of investor.
"Media-Most sees a direct link between the actions of the general prosecutor and Gazprom-Media's efforts to get a monopoly on finding an investor for NTV," Yelena Buni told Reuters.
"It is clear Gazprom-Media wants to sell its shares not simply to a respectable investor but to an investor which the Kremlin wants."
Gusinsky now controls 49.5 percent of NTV while Gazprom has 46 percent. Gusinsky has pledged a further 19 percent stake to Gazprom as collateral for a further debts of $261 million, due for repayment next year.
A spokesman for Ted Turner told the WSJ said "it is a personal initiative and not connected to America Online (AOL: Research, Estimates) or Time Warner Inc. (TWX: Research, Estimates)." Turner is Vice-Chairman of Time Warner, which owns CNNfn.com.
AOL's proposed merger with Time Warner is awaiting clearance by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.
--from staff and wire reports