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NTV, Russia's largest private television network.

Founded in 1993, NTV broke the mould of Soviet broadcasting, introducing political satire, lively independent-minded journalism, and slick production.

For many viewers, the most obvious difference between NTV and the competition may simply be that NTV looks different. NTV also invested large amounts of money into making its news coverage more professional, it was the first to broadcast live from location via satellite uplink.

The puppet show, Kukly, featuring grotesque caricatures of leading politicians, was an instant hit, and the heavyweight weekly news and current affairs programme, Itogi, presented by Yevgeny Kiselyov increasingly outstripped its competitors.

Many of the intelligentsia, meanwhile, regarded the satirical Itogo programme created by ironist Viktor Shenderovich as the funniest programme on Russian television.

NTV's honest reporting from the front line of the first Chechen war of 1994-1996 awoke the Kremlin of Boris Yeltsin to the real meaning of media freedom.

But when the chips were down at the time of the 1996 presidential election, and a Communist victory seemed a real possibility, the station helped to orchestrate a blanket of favourable media coverage of the Yeltsin campaign.

This was a political deal for which NTV and its recently ousted owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, were amply rewarded.

But since Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister and then President, there has been a noticeable tightening of the state's grip on the media.

The event that sparked off NTV's dispute with the Kremlin was the start of the war in Chechnya in September 1999.

With much of Mr Putin's personal rating dependant on the success of the 1999 operation, it was in his interest that the Russian people were shown a favourable account of events. NTV challenged this. They tried to give a balanced view, explaining why the army was undertaking certain operations, but highlighting incompetence and ill-discipline when they saw it.

On wider social issues in Russian life, such as non-payment of salaries, poor housing conditions or the indifference of local authorities, NTV has tended to be harder hitting than the state-owned national TV channels, ORT and RTR.

A battle for control of NTV has been won by the state-dominated gas monopoly Gazprom, sparking fears that media freedom has been dealt a serious blow.

Until February 2001, Gazprom's stake in NTV was a minority 46% holding. Media-Most, owned by Gusinsky, held 19%. But after a debt battle between the two firms - Gazprom says it is owed millions - a court froze Media-Most's stake, in effect handing control to Gazprom.

In a boardroom coup, the old NTV board was sacked by Gazprom.

Different forces in Russia have tried to present the battle for control of NTV as a purely economic affair - a station that ran into financial difficulties, and was taken over by a creditor - or alternatively as a purely political affair - an attempt by the Kremlin to silence a vocal critic.

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