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Russia: Government Shuts Down Last Nationwide Independent Television Station (Part 1)

Russia's media minister last night pulled the plug on TV-6, the country's last private nationwide television station, less than two weeks after a federal arbitration court revoked the network's license. The Kremlin says the closure of TV-6 was the resolution of a simple business dispute, but critics charge the government with manipulating the courts to once again silence a critical media outlet.

Prague, 22 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The closure of Russia's TV-6 has an all-too-familiar ring for those who followed the demise of the former NTV television network, owned by tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, in April.

Gusinsky was forced to cede ownership of the station to the government-controlled Gazprom monopoly after the company suddenly called in its loans to the network. The government called it a business transaction. Critics, including many of the leading staffers, said the Gazprom move was orchestrated by the Kremlin which, among other things, objected to NTV's critical coverage of the war in Chechnya.

In the case of TV-6, the partly state-controlled oil company LUKoil, which owned a 15-percent stake in the station, sued the network under a rarely used law allowing minority shareholders to force loss-making enterprises into bankruptcy.

An initial court judgment in late December came down on the side of TV-6's management. But less than two weeks later, a higher federal court reversed the ruling, declaring the station bankrupt and ordering the revocation of TV-6's license to broadcast. The Kremlin, once again, called it a business matter.

Independent observers, however, point to several discrepancies which put the higher court's judgment into question and raise serious questions about possible government interference in the affairs of the media. For one, the section of the law used by LUKoil to sue TV-6 was struck off Russia's law books on 1 January.

The lower court ruled against LUKoil when the law was still applicable, but the higher court reversed that ruling after the new year, using as its basis the now-defunct article. Furthermore, the entire basis for LUKoil's suit was that TV-6 was losing money when in fact, by 2001, the station had reversed previous losses and was showing ever-increasing revenues. According to Otto Latsis, deputy editor of the Russian daily "Noviye Izvestia," these factors plus the speed with which the federal court convened to overturn the initial judgment confirms suspicions of manipulation.

"This is a case of absolutely open pressure on the part of the government. A lower court, on 29 December, ruled in favor of the journalists. [Then] there was some backroom dealing," Latsis said. "Ordinary citizens can wait years for a court decision, but here, on the first working day after the New Year's holiday, a plenum of the high arbitration court immediately convened and annulled the decision that favored the journalists. They ruled in favor of the minority shareholder, and the president [Putin] had the audacity to speak in Paris about the need to defend minority shareholder rights! And where are the rights of the main shareholder, with 75 percent of the shares and not 15?"

As soon as Vladimir Gusinsky lost control of NTV last April, another tycoon on the outs with the Kremlin, Boris Berezovsky, offered the station's disgruntled journalists new jobs at TV-6. Many took the offer. Their investigative reports on corruption and other subjects not featured on government networks instantly boosted TV-6's ratings, soon placing the network among the nation's favorites. The station started making money and the Kremlin, says Latsis, once again felt threatened.

"[TV-6] was a very average station until the destruction of NTV's independence. It was fifth or sixth in the ratings. But after NTV's independence was destroyed and [Yevgenii] Kiselyov's team -- the main news and political team -- switched to TV-6 on Berezovsky's invitation, TV-6 quickly leapt ahead of the other stations," Latsis said. "It became third, then second in the ratings. Its popularity grew very quickly, advertising came in and that is the reason why the station started to make money."

Russian Media Minister Mikhail Lesin, speaking at a news conference in Moscow today, denied any government involvement in the TV-6 case, saying the ministry was merely respecting a court judgment.

"We made a decision to implement the court order on halting the validity of the license -- or rather, on ending broadcasts following the revoking of the license -- in accordance with the court's decision," Lesin said. "And today, on this frequency, starting this morning, sports programs are being broadcast which are being provided by NTV-Plus [satellite network]."

But TV-6 Director Yevgenii Kiselyov told journalists that he saw the station's liquidation as an indication of Russian President Vladimir Putin's authoritarian leanings. He lashed out at Western leaders, whom he called co-participants in the muzzling of independent journalism.

"I think that many of the Western leaders that are displaying such big love for Mr. Putin, who are supporting him as a democratic leader -- they are also responsible for the closure of TV-6, the last remaining national independent television company," Kiselyov said. "And they are responsible for the future of democracy in Russia."

Grigorii Krichevskii, another TV-6 employee, expressed resolve to persevere: "We will look for other ways to broadcast. We will try to work through the Internet, through satellites, maybe on the radio, maybe through newspapers. It is important that our journalists, our editors, our cameramen, keep their jobs and remain in the profession."

Some of those faces may indeed reappear, but what they will be broadcasting remains very much in doubt. For Otto Latsis, the government's assertion that it played no part in the LUKoil lawsuit that brought down TV-6 rings hollow: "It's perfectly clear that this is a case of government pressure. An oil company, in a country where all oil producers' revenues depend on exports and exports flow through one pipeline that is in the hands of the government -- this simple fact means a so-called independent oil company is in fact totally dependent on the government."

And beginning today, it appears that television stations in Russia will fall into that same category.