- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2002

Russian authorities forced the country's last independent television station off the air yesterday, bringing a sharp rebuke from Washington and raising new fears about the future of press freedoms under President Vladimir Putin.
Officials cut electricity, phone and Internet service for TV-6 at midnight, after a lengthy financial and legal battle between its owner, self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, and the oil giant Lukoil, a minority shareholder in the station that also has close ties to the Kremlin.
TV-6 newscasts had criticized the government's handling of the military campaign in Chechnya, and its news staff yesterday accused Mr. Putin of engineering the shutdown.
Network General Manager Yevgeny Kiselyov, one of the country's best-known TV journalists, told reporters in Moscow yesterday he had "no doubt it was the president's decision to close the station down."
"Russia is heading towards an authoritarian and totalitarian regime. The authorities have shown that this team of journalists does not meet its requirements," Mr. Kiselyov said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday the speed with which authorities moved against TV-6 and the selective application of the law to the Kremlin's media critics both raised concerns.
"The legal action and the closure of TV-6 are extremely difficult to understand in any business or financial context," Mr. Boucher said, noting that the law invoked to shutter the station had been used only once before against NTV, another independent television network that had also criticized the Chechnya campaign.
Asked whether the U.S. government believed that Mr. Putin was behind the TV-6 action, Mr. Boucher replied, "I would say that, given the appearance of political pressure on the judicial process, the political authorities could have withdrawn that pressure, yes."
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also condemned the Russian government action.
"It would be a considerable setback for the diversity of media in Russia if this development led to the breakup of the network without a substitute," Mr. Fischer said.
In place of TV-6's usual programs, the channel yesterday was broadcasting sports shows to Moscow viewers. Some of the network's news reports were read aloud over Echo Moscow, an independent radio station.
Russian Media Minister Mikhail Lesin denied there was any political motivation in the government's action, saying the ministry was only enforcing a Jan. 11 court order to suspend the network's license. The court upheld a filing by a pension fund tied to Lukoil, which owns 15 percent of the station, that TV-6's parent company was bankrupt and the station should be auctioned off.
Mr. Lesin and TV-6 journalists reportedly discussed an agreement to keep the station operating if Mr. Berezovsky, a longtime Putin critic, could be forced out. Mr. Kiselyov told the Moscow Times that the press minister pressured the journalists to include a member of the presidential administration in the newly formed ownership group.
The drama over TV-6 played like a rerun of the battle last summer between Russian legal authorities and NTV, owned by another exiled "oligarch," Vladimir Gusinsky.
In that battle, the minority shareholder was the energy giant Gazprom, which argued that Mr. Gusinsky had effectively surrendered control through mismanagement and heavy borrowing. As with TV-6, government legal and media officials put heavy and sustained pressure on the network, including raids of its offices.
Many of the journalists who worked for Mr. Gusinsky at NTV, including Mr. Kiselyov, moved to TV-6 when a management team backed by Gazprom took over from Mr. Gusinsky.
The NTV battle attracted widespread attention in the West. Mr. Gusinsky was hailed by media watchdog groups and gave a speech to a packed luncheon at the National Press Club here.
But Western governments have muted their criticism of the Kremlin's Chechen campaign after Mr. Putin strongly allied himself with the United States in the war on global terrorism.
A court-ordered tender for Mr. Berezovsky's controlling stake in TV-6's parent company has been set for March 27. Mr. Lesin said the journalists working at TV-6 were free to attempt to acquire the station's license, if the company could "organize itself and solve its problems."
Mr. Berezovsky, an early backer of Mr. Putin who now lives in Western Europe, told the Reuters news agency by telephone yesterday that the Russian president "has ruined the legal system."
"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," Mr. Berezovsky said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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