MOSCOW (AP) - A court ordered the closure of the last national
television network outside the government's control Friday - a
decision prompting concern about media freedom in Russia.
The ruling to close TV6 is the second major defeat for a group
of prominent journalists who earlier worked at the independent
NTV channel and fought its April takeover by the state-controlled
natural gas monopoly Gazprom.
After the takeover, they joined TV6, a smaller station that
is majority-owned by Kremlin critic and tycoon Boris Berezovsky.
The TV6 case revolved around a bankruptcy suit brought by minority
shareholder Lukoil-Garant, a pension fund owned by Russian oil
Lukoil-Garant, which holds a 15 percent stake in TV6 and which
is itself minority-owned by the Russian state, demanded the station
be liquidated because it failed to bring a profit.
Judge Eduard Renov told the Interfax news agency that TV6 should
be liquidated because for three years it operated in violation
of a law requiring that a company's assets balance out its debts.
But TV6 said the company is profitable, and argued that a new
law that took effect this year bans minority shareholders from
bringing bankruptcy cases. Lukoil lawyers said the decision should
be made under the old law, since they initiated proceedings last
The decision by the judges of the Higher Arbitration Court is
final, although lawyers for the station said they may ask the
Constitutional Court or the European Court of Human Rights to
rule on its legality.
TV6 journalists accused the judges of carrying out the Kremlin's
orders to eliminate critical voices.
``This is judicial tyranny, judicial revenge,'' TV6 director
Yevgeny Kiselyov said on Echo of Moscow radio.
The case has prompted international concern about media freedom
in Russia. Of Russia's four major networks, TV6 provides the most
critical reporting about President Vladimir Putin (news - web
sites) and the war in Chechnya (news - web sites).
In Washington, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer (news
- web sites) said the U.S. administration was ``disappointed''
by the decision. ``It is unfortunate that there has been the strong
appearance of political pressure on the courts during these proceedings,''
he said in a statement.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: ``Freedom of
the press and promotion of the rule of law are best served by
allowing TV-6 to remain on the air.''
The Russian Journalists Union called Friday's ruling ``a mockery
... of any idea of justice and law'' and warned it would have
``far-reaching consequences for media freedom.''
Yevgeny Volk, a Moscow-based political analyst with the Heritage
Foundation, warned: ``The examples of NTV and TV6 have forced
many journalists to practice self-censorship.''
Journalists who defected to TV6 from NTV - including some of
the country's most popular and experienced - were criticized at
the time for allying themselves with Berezovsky.
TV6's association with the tycoon may have sped its downfall,
Volk said. Berezovsky lives abroad evading corruption charges
he says are politically motivated.
The station was still broadcasting Friday, and TV6 lawyers said
its broadcast license should be annulled only after the liquidation,
which must be carried out within six months of the first appeals
ruling, made in November.
TV6 has the fourth-largest share of the Russian national television
audience, although it does not reach all of Russia's 89 regions.
There was no comment from the Kremlin on Friday's decision.
But Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, who is accused of helping orchestrate
the earlier NTV takeover, congratulated journalists on the upcoming
Russian Press Day.
``Freedom of press in our country and the possibility to express
one's point of view have long stopped being a declaration and
turned into an everyday reality,'' said his statement, carried
by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Media Law in Russia