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Independent Siberian TV Channel Faces Shutdown

A protester expresses his support for Tomsk TV-2.
A protester expresses his support for Tomsk TV-2.

When the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve this year, audiences in the Siberian city of Tomsk will likely lose a familiar, independent source of information.

Tomsk TV-2, which is widely seen as one of the most respected and professional regional television stations in Russia for the last 23 years, has been informed by the city's state-monopoly television broadcast center that it will cease transmitting the channel's signal as of January 1.

Although the reasons behind the threatened shutoff remain murky, it comes against a background of state pressure against activists, nongovernmental organizations, and nonstate media in Russia by both national and local authorities.

The announcement by the Tomsk Regional Broadcasting Center violates the terms of the contract with TV-2 itself, as well as Russian antimonopoly legislation, says the station's lawyer, Anastasia Olgovskaya.

The station has said it will appeal the decision. But Melani Bachina, a Tomsk TV-2 presenter and producer who is also a freelance correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service, says she suspects this may come to nothing.

"No one is trying to be in contact with us," she says. "No one is making any effort to talk to us about anything. No one has given us any argumentation for why this is happening." The lack of any effort to resolve the issue makes her feel the decision to close down TV-2 "has already been made."

Nowhere To Appeal

TV-2 representatives do not know what the reason for the transmission center's decision is, but they are convinced the impetus for the impending closure came from someone else.

"It is perfectly clear that the transmitters are only the middlemen in this, that someone else stands behind this decision," Bachina says. "But who is it? Of course, we have suppositions, but since we have no facts or evidence, there is nothing that we can do and we cannot appeal to those people or to that person."

TV-2 editor Viktor Muchnik agrees. "Our story, like so many stories in our country, is unfortunate in that the person acting against us is anonymous," he says. "We are always dealing with some sort of intermediary who says: 'I don't know anything. They tell me from above what to do and I do it.' We can only guess who is pulling the strings. But I know that the mere existence of this channel over the years has been a problem for many people."

Earlier this year, the transmitter stopped broadcasting TV-2's signal for about six weeks, claiming that some TV-2 equipment had damaged equipment belonging to the transmission tower. That blackout prompted the Russian Justice Ministry's national media register to warn TV-2 that it would lose its license if it did not resume broadcasting. Although the dispute was resolved, activists saw it as a warning to the channel.

Bachina says she has no idea what will become of the station's 300 employees, adding that there is little chance TV-2 could switch to cable or Internet broadcasting.

"The majority of our audience is elderly. They are people who have been watching TV-2 for years," she says. "These are people who, in one way or another, become the subjects of our reports. These are people who do not even have cable TV -- they receive us through terrestrial broadcasting. So, what is the point in talking about switching to the Internet? These people will be deprived of this source of information."

Last Independent Voices

The impending shutdown of Tomsk TV-2 comes against the background of a similar assault by the authorities on the popular independent television channel Dozhd TV. That channel was removed from cable and satellite networks in February and has been forced to ask viewers for payments.

Dozhd has been evicted from its Moscow offices twice in recent months and, according to the BBC on December 8, is currently broadcasting from an employee's residence.

The liberal national radio station Ekho Moskvy was involved in a dispute last month between its journalists and its owner, Gazprom-Media, in which the latter briefly threatened to fire the station's chief editor and revamp its news and talk format.

TV-2 editor Muchnik says independent regional channels are far more vulnerable to the whims of local officials.

"Of course, this is a very bad precedent," Muchnik says. "It is particularly bad because the economic situation in the country is getting worse, tensions are increasing, especially in the regions. Of course, any local official is going to be at odds with any local media that doesn't relate the news according to his script. And this conflict is going to be twice as bad or three times as bad under these growing tensions."

"If this can happen to us, then it can happen anywhere -- in Kuban, in Krasnoyarsk, in Yekaterinburg -- anywhere," he adds.

Written by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and Current TV