Russian steel giant Severstal, controlled by billionaire Alexei Mordashov, has bought a controlling stake in Ren-TV - the sole surviving local TV channel to have pursued a Kremlin-independent news reporting policy.

Mordashov, another of Mother Russia's instant billionaires enriched by the sell-off of the nation's former state-owned assets, is reportedly an enthusiastic supporter of President Vladimire Putin and his policies.

Ren-TV's former owner, electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems, announced Friday it had sold its 70% stake in Ren-TV for rubles 288 million ($100m; €120m; £68m) to a subsidiary of Severstal Group.

Intriguingly, there was also a concurrent announcement by Ren-TV founders Irina and Dmitry Lesnevsky, who revealed they had sold their 30% minority holding in the channel to Bertelsmann's pan-European TV business RTL Group.

RTL was quick to deny it would muzzle the channel's editorial independence. "We wanted a general interest channel that appeals to a lot of people, and that includes its editorial line," insists RTL senior vice president Andrew Buckhurst. "Our policy is not to change anything in the [channel's] current programming grid or style," he said.

But if a criticism-sensitive Kremlin was to apply a political armlock, what then? "We'll cross that bridge when we get there," came the cagey answer.

Severstal confirmed it had acquired a controlling stake but soft-pedalled the influence of the Kremlin in the purchase. "You can just write that Severstal is interested in the channel as an investment in our country's growing media market," twitched a nervous source.

Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists was more outspoken. "Severstal, as any business is, is extremely dependent on the Kremlin. This is just a continuation of the cleansing of the news field before the [parliamentary and presidential] elections," he said.

Observed one Slav cynic: "Such things could not happen in a free democracy. Ask Rupert Murdoch and the White House."

Data sourced from Moscow Times; additional content by WARC staff