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Russia: TV-6 At Center Of New Media Controversy

Russia's privately owned TV-6 broadcasting station is the latest network to face controversy after a Moscow arbitration court ordered its liquidation. Troubles for the station began in September when a minority shareholder -- oil giant LUKoil -- filed suit against TV-6, citing poor financial performance. LUKoil has since done an about-face, offering to buy out the majority stake from self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky. Some observers are saying the struggle over TV-6 -- which absorbed a number of NTV journalists when that station was taken over earlier this year -- may alarm authorities hoping to quell opposition voices in the media.

Moscow, 25 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- TV-6 scored an apparent coup earlier this year when it adopted a large part of the news team from the private and outspoken NTV network, which was in the midst of a hostile takeover by the country's Gazprom gas monopoly.

Since then, however, TV-6 has encountered similar troubles of its own. A minority shareholder, gas giant LUKoil, filed suit against the station, citing poor financial performance and accusing the majority shareholder, tycoon Boris Berezovsky, of making unauthorized management decisions. In September, a Moscow arbitration court ordered the station's liquidation.

Berezovsky, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Europe since fleeing charges of financial misdealings in 1999, has apparently attempted to solve LUKoil's problems by purchasing their 15 percent stake. In an open letter to LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov published recently in the "Kommersant" business daily, Berezovsky alluded to earlier discussions of such a sale, and said he was willing to pay $10 million to own TV-6 in its entirety. But Alekperov countered with a surprising offer of his own, saying LUKoil was willing to purchase Berezovsky's 70 percent stake.

Alekperov could not be reached for comment. But in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Berezovsky questioned LUKoil's apparent reversal on the issue.

"When I heard that Alekperov wanted to sell his shares, I made my offer. But the way he responded [by offering to buy my shares] confirms that he has double standards. On the one hand, he asked me to sell my shares, and this is like Alekperov saying he's aware of TV-6's value. When he said he wanted to liquidate the channel because it's loss-making, he was just playing a clever trick. I offered him real money; if the channel gets liquidated, he's not going to get any money. Secondly, he said to me, 'You have a choice: Sell us your 70 percent or the channel will be liquidated.' In my point of view, this is just a total racket."

Berezovsky's letter also accused Alekperov of having political motives and of following Kremlin orders to buy out TV-6, which is Russia's last remaining privately owned national network.

The controversy is reminiscent of the recent scandal regarding Russia's private NTV network, which was taken over in April by Gazprom after a protracted struggle with its co-founder and original owner, tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. A majority of NTV's news team, including its general director, Yevgeny Kiselyov, has since joined forces with TV-6. Though ranked fourth nationwide in terms of information programs -- behind NTV, ORT, and RTR -- TV-6 still reaches a wide audience, broadcasting in 584 Russian and former Soviet cities with a potential 130 million viewers. TV-6's "Itogi" news-analysis program, which was created for NTV and is still anchored by Kiselyov, is the top-rated program of its kind.

Lyudmila Resnyanskaya is a journalism professor at Moscow State University. She says that after the NTV news team joined TV-6, the channel showed a marked improvement in its news coverage, emphasizing factual information rather than commentary. It is this quality, she adds, that may be causing concern among Russian authorities.

"As far as the present TV-6 position is concerned, the channel is working objectively. It prefers to inform, rather than give commentary on events. Furthermore, it doesn't comment on events from the point of view of its owner. The conflict [over TV-6] seems to have been aroused in order to get rid of what may eventually become an opposition source of information. There is a conflict regarding loyalty [to the authorities]. In my opinion, what Boris Abramovich Berezovsky wrote in the open letter to Alekperov [about political motives] is correct."

Resnyanskaya says Russia's present stance on the media has changed since the days of former President Boris Yeltsin, when the press was openly seen as a powerful political tool. Current President Vladimir Putin, she adds, is no more liberal in his attitude toward the media and began his own crackdown on the press after being elected. Now, Resnyanskaya says, there is virtually no voice of opposition in the Russian media. Even TV-6, home to what was considered the "oppositionist" team of NTV journalists, she says, has been careful to deliver straightforward news devoid of commentary.

She cites the current scandal involving Railway Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko, who this week was accused of gross financial misconduct, as an example of the newly cautious tone that many journalists are adopting: "At the beginning of this year, the media would have made such a sensation out of it. But after the events with NTV, journalists have learned the lesson that it's better to avoid commentary and just survive. They give viewers pure information with no commentary. And TV-6 is no exception."

But even though many journalists have adopted a more cautious stance, Resnyanskaya says, the attitude of authorities toward the media has yet to soften. She says Kremlin spin-doctors are now worried that TV-6 may eventually adopt a more critical tone, assuming the role that NTV has played in the past.

"TV-6 is quite a wide-ranging channel. [Kremlin] spin-doctors are acting according to [Russian] tradition -- they're worried that the channel may become influential. They are now afraid that TV-6 may play the opposition role [that NTV used to]," she says.

Resnyanskaya says such fears mean the future may be bleak for TV-6 if Berezovsky purchases the minority stake from LUKoil. She says: "Even if in the future TV-6's broadcasts get even less emotional, this would not be enough to convince [the authorities]. As long as Berezovsky controls the channel's shares, the channel will represent trouble for the authorities. To convince them that TV-6 is not dangerous -- and that it is objective in its coverage of current events -- is impossible, because no one wants to believe it. Even if TV-6 currently poses no informational threat."

Berezovsky has been the focus of Kremlin wrath since falling from grace as a Kremlin insider during the Yeltsin presidency. The government renewed its attack on 22 October, re-issuing an arrest warrant originally put out in 1999 in connection with Berezovsky's purported misdealings with Aeroflot airlines. Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov said Berezovsky will be arrested immediately if he sets foot on Russian soil.

TV-6 journalists have steered clear of the controversy surrounding the station. Only one veiled mention of the issue was made during the station's programming yesterday -- during a humorous show featuring an animated pig and rabbit, Khriun and Stepan. The two said the country would soon have a television channel that would feature round-the-clock broadcasts of Putin's portrait.