Russia's state-run gas monopoly plans to buy one of the country's leading newspapers, further strengthening the Kremlin's dominance of the media.

Gazprom's media arm is close to buying a stake of just over 50 percent in Izvestia, one of the country's most respected papers, from a unit of billionaire Vladimir Potanin's industrial and banking conglomerate Interros.

A person close to Interros said President Vladimir Putin's administration had "ordered" the company to sell its stake in Izvestia to the gas monopoly. A Kremlin spokesman said that there was no such order and that companies make independent decisions based on their own interests.

Since coming to power in 1999, Putin has used Gazprom as his main tool for reasserting state control over the media. In 2001, the gas monopoly took over NTV, Russia's only independent television channel, from tycoon Vladimir A. Gusinsky, who now lives in self-imposed exile. Since then, NTV, once known for hard-hitting reports that attacked Putin, rarely criticizes him.

Until now, it was thought the Kremlin would limit itself to muzzling the national TV channels. "This shows they want to purge the print media, too," said Raf Shakirov, a former Izvestia editor in chief.

Founded in 1917 and for decades the official organ of the Soviet government, Izvestia became independent in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed.

It emerged as Russia's best-selling high-quality newspaper, with a readership of some 370,000.

With owner Potanin often regarded as the most loyal oligarch, Izvestia eschewed the kind of head-on battles with the Kremlin that hastened NTV's downfall while still maintaining its reputation as a liberal beacon. But the paper's supporters fear it may now lose its independent voice.

Activists expressed concern in Moscow on May 22 over growing state consolidation of media.