Russia's Media Most has denied reports that it is in talks to sell out to key shareholder, state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom.

Local media has speculated that Russian president Vladimir Putin is putting pressure on the company to sell Gazprom a bigger stake, in lieu of unpaid debt, following the government's decision last week to drop an embezzlement case against chairman Vladimir Gusinsky. Media Most's flagship NTV station has been openly critical of Putin and the war in Chechnya.

In addition, the Russian government is also in talks with Boris Berezovsky to buy the 49% stake in broadcaster ORT that it doesn't already own. Media Most is claiming that Putin is trying to seize control of two of the country's leading broadcasters to stifle criticism. The state already runs Russia's third television network, RTR.

"It would be very comfortable for the Kremlin to have NTV, ORT and RTR under control with no criticism,'' said Media Most spokeswoman Elena Bruni.

Gusinsky left Russia to join his family in Spain last week after the criminal case against him of defrauding the Russian government of $10m was dropped due to lack of evidence (Screendaily, July 31).