TV6 becomes latest casualty in war over Russian airwaves

Few options for staff as plug is pulled on last independent network

January 23, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Hours after government officials pulled the plug yesterday on the television network called TV6, the last network independent of Kremlin control, members of its staff gathered in their old studios to plan their next move.

They have few choices.

Svetlana Sorokina, host of a popular news talk show, likened the shutdown engineered by the government and its business allies to a murder. "There is no place now where I can work and start a new program," she said. "We are liquidated."

Svetlana Syomina, senior editor of a TV6 show about movies, said she feared for Russia as well as for her livelihood. "What will happen next to our country if there is no variety of views in the media?" she said. "Will we unanimously elect a new president and legislators close to the Kremlin?"

The government, acting on a court order, abruptly halted transmission of TV6's signal at midnight; the network's phones and Internet connections were also cut.

The Press Ministry quickly replaced TV6's regular programming in Moscow with sports shows borrowed from a rival network. Yesterday afternoon, the network that had often dared to challenge the Kremlin's version of events was reduced to broadcasting a ballroom dancing competition.

In St. Petersburg, network management said, the station's staff defiantly broadcast Swan Lake - the same ballet that appeared on all television channels during an attempted coup by hard-line Communists in August 1991. Scores of small, independent stations in regions far from Moscow simply went off the air yesterday, the network said.

Kremlin officials have long described themselves as mere referees in legal disputes between business rivals over ownership of TV6. "The clash of interests between oligarchs that we're seeing over TV6 is one in which the government shouldn't and won't interfere," President Vladimir V. Putin said recently.

But TV6 journalists remain unconvinced. "I think President Putin bears responsibility for destroying independent TV6," the network's general director, Yevgeny Kiselyov, said yesterday.

The network's closure is the latest battle in a lopsided war over control of Russia's airwaves. The state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom, seized control of the major television network NTV last year from a tycoon out of favor with the Kremlin.

Kiselyov was NTV's general director. Under his leadership, NTV was widely regarded as the network with the most professional and critical coverage of Putin - especially of Russia's war against Chechen separatists. After Gazprom's victory, NTV's coverage changed. "Certainly, it has been less critical," said Yasen Zasursky, head ofMoscow State University's journalism department.

Fearing interference by the Kremlin, Kiselyov and other NTV journalists left and joined TV6. The network is owned by Boris Berezovsky, another oligarch who helped put Putin in power - but who in recent years has become the president's bitter foe.

After NTV journalists defected to TV6, the petroleum company Lukoil, which is dependent on the Kremlin's good will, filed suit to force TV6 off the air. The lawsuit cited a law - never previously invoked - giving minority stockholders the right to sue to force unprofitable companies to sell all their assets. Berezovsky, who owns 75 percent of TV6, lost the last in a series of appeals this month. The law has meanwhile been repealed.

The Press Ministry tried in recent days to broker a deal in which Berezovsky would surrender the station's license. In exchange, Kiselyov and his team were to continue broadcasting until the license was auctioned in March. The journalists hoped then to win the license themselves.

The move would have insulated TV6's staff from being tainted by Berezovsky, regarded by the Kremlin as an enemy. Kiselyov and his team initially agreed but reconsidered over the past few days.

On Monday, the journalists withdrew their offer to continue broadcasting, an offer that they said had been made under duress. Sorokina said journalists had also been warned by government officials that their application for a license would ultimately be denied.

Press Minister Mikhail Lesin tried yesterday to reassure TV6's 1,200 employees that they still had a chance to run the station themselves. "If the collective of journalists manages to pull itself together to overcome its problems, then everything will be all right," he said.

But TV6's staff didn't believe it. "How can we win?" asked Syomina. "Did they take all this trouble to close us, just to let us win?"

Lesin had said Monday that he would enforce the court's closure order in a few days. Instead, he halted broadcasting at midnight. Technicians cut power to TV6's transmitter while the network was broadcasting a folk-singing program. Members of the production staff said they were given 10 minutes' notice.

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