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Closure of TV6 sparks wide concern

January 23, 2002

MOSCOW - Russia abruptly pulled the plug on its only nationwide independent television station on Tuesday, giving the Kremlin a monopoly of the airwaves for the first time since the Soviet era and sparking international concern.

Moscow has said the fate of TV6 is purely a business matter following a court ruling upholding a shareholder's complaint that the station was bankrupt.

But it has raised widespread concern over President Vladimir Putin's tolerance of dissent and the independence of the courts.

Boris Berezovsky, TV6's owner, told Reuters the shutdown was the latest move by the Kremlin to secure control over the media. He accused Putin of "destroying" Russia's legal system.

The United States also questioned the legality of the closure and said political authorities could have stopped it if they had wanted.

At midnight on Monday, a TV6 talk show host was interrupted mid-sentence and replaced with test pattern stripes and the message: "We have been pulled off the air". Power was shut off at the studio and telephones and internet links were cut.

"The authorities today showed that their single goal is to gag us," TV6 General Director Yevgeny Kiselyov told Ekho Moskvy radio which later broadcast some TV6 news bulletins.

Boris Nemtsov, head of the free-market Union of Right-wing Forces party, told Ekho Moskvy: "This was a huge political mistake on the president's part, and I hope that sooner or later somebody will explain that to him, or he will realise it himself."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Tuesday the legal action and closure of TV6 was "extremely difficult to understand in any business or any financial context."

"For some time there's been a very strong appearance of political pressure in the judicial process against Russia's independent media, including in this case," he told a news conference.

Asked if President Putin could have saved TV6 from closure, he replied: "I would say that given the appearance of political pressure on the judicial process that political authorities could have withdrawn that pressure, yes."

Boucher said "very unusual and rapid developments" had taken place in the case against TV6 at high judicial levels where he said things normally took several months.

In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also expressed concern. "It would be a considerable setback for the diversity of opinion and diversity of media in Russia if this development led to the breakup of the network without a substitute," he said.

Public reaction in Russia has been restrained compared to last year when independent broadcaster NTV was taken over by the Kremlin-controlled natural gas monopoly in a boardroom coup that led to street protests and on-air strikes by reporters. Most TV6 staff were recruited from NTV.

The Kremlin says it had nothing to do with action against NTV and TV6, though Putin has never concealed his contempt for Berezovsky and former NTV owner Vladimir Gusinsky, or his belief they had abused the power of their media holdings.


Berezovsky, a former Kremlin insider turned Putin opponent and now living in exile in western Europe, said TV6's shutdown was part of Kremlin plans to tighten central control in Russia.

"I think the next logical step will be making the media further subservient to the authorities and the forging of a single public opinion so that everyone thinks the way the president thinks," he said by telephone.

"I believe the president has ruined the legal system. As for TV6, the arbitration court adopted clearly illegal positions. It was a farce, a comedy."

By pulling the plug, authorities silenced a team that, first at NTV and then at TV6, dared criticise military tactics in Chechnya and expose alleged corruption scandals in the Kremlin.

In both companies, huge oil and gas firms with ties to the state acquired minority stakes and went to court to wrest management control from the businessmen.

Media Minister Mikhail Lesin, who ordered TV6 switched off, told reporters it was "in Berezovsky's interest to exploit the situation: he always has to prove he is a dissident."

A tender for the channel would be held on March 27, he said, and TV6 could resume "if the journalists are able to organise themselves and solve their...problems".

In TV6's case, a pension fund for Russia's biggest oil company LUKOIL held a 15 percent stake and won a court case to close the station, saying it was bankrupt.

But TV6 said popular programmes, like Russia's first Big Brother-like reality show, had improved its finances.


See also:

TV6 case

Reuters, January 23, 2002

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