Putin TV

Russia’s last independent network goes under.

Fred Weir

MoscowThe Kremlin pulled the plug on Russias last independent TV network in late January, leaving most of the population with fewer information sources than at any time since the USSR collapsed a decade ago. But the death of TV-6 came not with a Soviet-style jackboot through the door, but after a long series of pseudo-legal maneuvers designed to make state closure look like a business dispute.

TV-6, a combative, news-driven network that reached more than 50 percent of Russians, had turned a healthy profit in the past year and doubled its ratings. Yet it was driven into liquidation by a minority shareholderthe Lukoil petroleum giantusing a byzantine bankruptcy law that has since been repealed by the Duma, Russias lower house of parliament.

Russian analysts say the story only makes sense when you consider two things: TV-6 was 75 percent owned by renegade oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a former Kremlin insider-turned-opponent who is now in self-imposed exile in London. In addition, most of the networks staff, including news director Yevgeny Kiselyov, were journalistic refugees from NTV, Russias third-largest broadcaster, which was seized by the state-controlled Gazprom in a similar saga last year.

The journalists collective, led by Kiselyov, had been unsparing in its criticism of the ongoing war in Chechnya, corruption at Russias official and corporate levels, and the increasingly authoritarian style of President Vladimir Putin. It is obvious that wherever Kiselyov goes to work, the days of that company will be numbered, says Georgy Kuznetsov, a professor of journalism at Moscow State University. He incurred the wrath of the Kremlin, and you cant get away with that.

The government has a minority ownership stake in Lukoil, which launched its suit to close TV-6 last summer after Kisel-yov and his team had taken up residence at the network. The oil company acted on an obscure provision of the bankruptcy laws that allows a minority shareholder to sue for liquidation if a company pays no dividends for two years running. Since most Russian companiesand virtually all media propertieswould be bankrupted if the rule were generally applied, the Duma cancelled it last fall, effective January 1. Nevertheless, in mid-January, a Moscow court ordered TV-6 disbanded and its license put up for auction.

Press Minister Mikhail Lesinnotorious for his constant, ham-handed interference in the workings of Russias media markethinted that Kiselyov and his team might be permitted to remain at their jobs until the March auction, and even bid for ownership of the company, if they abandoned Berezovsky and ended their legal efforts to keep control of TV-6. When the journalists balked at that deal, bailiffs moved in at midnight January 22, switched off the networks power and sealed its doors. Its frequency was given to an all-sports network. It looks like some kind of television coup, Kiselyov said. The authorities have demonstrated that their single goal is to gag us.

No one has much sympathy for Berez-ovsky, who pioneered Russias Potemkin democracy, leading his fellow oligarchs in a corrupt and deceitful campaign that got former President Boris Yeltsin re-elected in 1996 but destroyed the political systems credibility. Berezovsky also claims to have orchestrated the operation that plucked Vladimir Putin from obscurity and placed him on the Kremlin throne in 1999.

But Berezovsky subsequently fled Russia after falling out with Putin, warning, ironically, that the new president is out to suffocate democracy and install personal rule. Berezovsky became rich due to undercover intrigues and state support, and now that same system is destroying him, says Andrei Milyokhin, director of Monitoring.Ru, a Moscow media consultancy. Unfortunately, these methods will not lead to creation of an open, free and competitive media market in Russia.

But many Russians do feel sorry for Kiselyov and his team, who were far and away the most hard-hitting, innovative and professional journalists on Russian TV. As long as viewers could see real news, even the state networks had to cover all the issues with some degree of honesty, says Alexei Simonov, chairman of the Foundation in Defense of Glasnost, an independent watchdog. Now it will be all Putin TV, all the time.

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Fred Weir is a Moscow correspondent for In These Times and regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, the London Independent, Canadian Press and the South China Morning Post. He is the co-author of Revolution from Above: The Demise of the Soviet System.
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