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By SARAH KARUSH, Associated Press Writer

Russian TV Station Ordered to Close

January 11, 2002

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 giant Lukoil.

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 year.

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.

See also:
Media Law in Russia
TV6 Case
NTV Case

Associated Press, January 11, 2002

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