MOSCOW - Riot police detained dozens of protesters on Sunday who picketed Moscow’s iconic television tower after footage purporting to show people being paid to rally against Vladimir Putin was aired nationally. An AFP correspondent saw organisers Boris Nemtsov and Sergei Udaltsov being led away with about 30 others sporting the white protest ribbons of the nascent movement against Putin. The crowd of about 500 chanted “Shame to NTV” and “Russia without Putin” as dozens of helmeted police protected the doors of the country’s main television centre and made periodic arrests.

Moscow Echo radio said the number of those bundled off to various Moscow police stations had reached 100 people as the unsanctioned rally wound down under a grey and drizzly sky.

The Ostankino tower protest aims to cap a growing campaign for Russians to boycott NTV television - a once proudly 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 shown up at the agreed location after responding to an advertisement 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.

NTV fell under state control just a year after Putin won his first term as president in 2000.

It had made its name by taking an unflinching look at the brutalities being committed during the 1990s war in Chechnya and by pillorying Russian leaders in weekly satirical programmes whose likes had not been seen in the country before.

Tens of thousands had gathered outside the same Ostankino tower in the station’s defence in 2001 in what to many became a symbolic protest against the onset of a Soviet-style domination of civil society by the state.

The Kremlin 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.