| The Press Ministry pulled the plug on financially beleaguered
television Sunday, replacing its often critical newscasts with the
all-sports programming of the new state-controlled channel Sport.
TVS was the last private national channel, and its closure gives the
Kremlin a monopoly on the airwaves ahead of December's parliamentary
elections and the March presidential vote.
"I have a feeling that somebody really needs what is happening,"
editor Yevgeny Kiselyov said by telephone. "I have a persistent feeling
that the events are guided by somebody's evil will."
TVS's demise follows the 2001 takeover of NTV television by
government-connected parties and last year's closure of Boris Berezovsky's
TV6. Following the NTV takeover, most of its prominent journalists, led
Kiselyov, fled to TV6, and after it was shut down, they formed TVS.
The Press Ministry said it ordered that TVS be closed because of is
longtime financial problems. "In this situation it was necessary
to make a
decision aimed at protecting the viewers' interests," the ministry
Critics brushed off the explanation as hypocritical and said the closure
was illegal. Under the law, a television channel can be shut down only
court decision, not a Press Ministry order, said Oleg Panfilov, head of
Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.
"The authorities have achieved what they have wanted -- to destroy
Kiselyov's team," Panfilov said. "They have been working at
it for 3 1/2
years in a very consistent manner."
Media-Sotsium, which holds TVS's broadcasting license, said it would
the Press Ministry decision. Media-Sotsium director Oleg Kiselyov told
Moskvy radio that the ministry had no right to take TVS off the air over
its financial problems.
TVS has been in dire straits for months, plagued not only by financial
troubles but also management disputes and a legal dispute with TV6's former
owner, MNVK, over its broadcasting license. The channel is funded by a
consortium of businessmen, including Unified Energy Systems chief Anatoly
Chubais and aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska. But the group has been torn
apart by internal disputes, while TVS finances continued to decline.
Spokesmen for Chubais and Deripaska refused to comment Sunday.
A loan of $50 million from state-owned Vneshekonombank has been nearly
up, and TVS journalists and technical staff have gone without pay for
months. TVS deputy chief Galina Segodina was appointed acting general
director Friday and assigned the task of sorting out wage arrears, TVS
spokeswoman Tatyana Blinova said.
Moscow city authorities pulled TVS off its cable network earlier this
month, claiming the channel had failed to pay $8 million for cable
services. TVS representatives insist they are being overcharged.
Yevgeny Kiselyov predicted last week that TVS would likely go off the
nationwide on Monday because of money problems. In an 11th-hour attempt
salvage the channel, he sent a letter to shareholders urging them to pay
back wages. He said he received no response. "I think their silence
quite eloquent," Kiselyov said. "I personally have no hope"
TVS went off the air at midnight and was replaced with sports broadcasting
Sunday morning. Sport television was created a few weeks ago by the
government in response to a call by President Vladimir Putin for a national
sports channel that would encourage Russians to get more physically fit.
Picking Sport to replace TVS was illegal, said Alexei Samokhvalov, who
helped draft federal regulations on broadcasting licenses and heads the
National Research Center of Television and Radio. "Why does this
channel suddenly get the opportunity to broadcast?" he said. "It
participated in no tenders [for the broadcasting license]. Maybe there
are others who want to broadcast on this frequency."
The license is technically held by MNVK, while TVS has been broadcasting
under a temporary permit in a Press Ministry arrangement that conforms
no Russian law, he said.
MNVK board member Igor Shabdurasulov said Sunday that Berezovsky might
give up his 75 percent stake in the company, Interfax reported.
Shabdurasulov said MNVK is holding talks with Sport but ruled out the
of the stake to a state entity. He made it clear, however, that MNVK would
not contest Sport's use of the frequency.
"We are now negotiating with Sport to legalize our preliminary
he said, adding that Sport's appearance on the frequency had been cleared
earlier with MNVK. Shabdurasulov said a deal would be reached by July
Speaking on Ekho Moskvy, Berezovsky refused to confirm whether he would
sell his MNVK stake and referred all questions to Shabdurasulov.
He said talk about a possible new buyer was secondary to the fact that
last television channel that is independent of the state has been
Blinova suggested that the shutdown was prompted by authorities' fears
a nonstate channel might promote opposition views in the State Duma and
presidential elections. "I can't imagine that we were saying something
terribly deplorable," she said. "But apparently we were or,
Politicians offered mixed views about TVS's demise Sunday.
Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov said infighting among its shareholders
to blame, Interfax reported.
The liberal Union of Right Forces, or SPS, party issued a statement
condemning the shutdown and calling for Press Minister Mikhail Lesin to
held responsible for "violating Russian laws."
Deputy SPS head Boris Nadezhdin said the shutdown "was the logical
continuation of the Kremlin's policy toward independent media."
He and SPS leader Boris Nemtsov said they had little doubt that TVS's
criticism of the authorities played a role in its demise.
Deputy Yabloko head Sergei
Ivanenko said the closure ended illusions that "oligarchs can
make a TV channel independent of the authorities by privatizing it,"
Communists also condemned the shutdown.
Pro-Kremlin centrists said they regretted it, but they were careful
blame the authorities. "There is nothing you can do about it if it
out that the Press Ministry had good cause," deputy Unity chief Oleg
Kovalyov told Interfax.
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Freedom of Speech
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