Anti-Putin protests target iconic Moscow TV tower
Russia's protest leaders prepared to picket Moscow's main television tower on Sunday after footage purporting to show people being paid to rally against Vladimir Putin was aired nationally.
The demonstration outside Ostankino tower is intended to cap a growing campaign for Russians to boycott NTV television -- a once independent network now run by the media arm of the state-run natural gas monopoly Gazprom.
The station had aired a series of self-proclaimed documentaries in the run-up to Putin's March 4 election to a third term claiming to back up his charges that the protests were being funded by the West.
Its latest report on Thursday night showed people openly accepting cash payments for attending a small anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow this winter.
But some of those who appeared at the rally told various private media outlets this weekend that they had only shown up at the agreed location after responding to an ad placed by NTV television itself.
"Now it is clear why the Kremlin decided to decriminalise defamation and make it into a civil offence on the eve of the elections," Gazprom Media's former director Alfred Kokh wrote in his blog.
More than 1,500 people promised to attend the unsanctioned 3:00 pm (1100 GMT) event on a page organised by the opposition on Facebook.
The once fiercely-critical station fell under state control just a year after Putin won his first term as president in 2000. Tens of thousands had gathered outside Ostankino tower in the station's defence at the time.
The Kremlin had managed extend its grip on almost all major TV networks by the time the former KGB spy left office and became prime minister under his hand-picked presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev in 2008.
The sudden prospects of his return and the fraud-tainted polls that helped the ruling party keep its parliamentary majority in December fuelled mass protests not seen in Moscow since the days of the Soviet Union's collapse.
The rallies have waned in the days since Putin's dominant win in a vote European monitors called more transparent than previous elections.
Yet hundreds still came out in Moscow on Saturday and a group of activists staged an overnight vigil near Red Square in defence of democratic freedoms.
NTV for its part seemed unbowed by the criticism and prepared to air the programme for a second time "due to popular demand" on Sunday evening.
A pro-Putin youth group also vowed to show up at the TV tower on Sunday to denounce the protest movement's defamation claims.
© 2012 AFP