Russia's last independent TV network went silent yesterday after a legal checkmate, widely seen as orchestrated by Kremlin forces, abruptly ended its year-long struggle for survival.
Analysts say there's little doubt that politics was the main factor in the midnight closure of TV-6, a feisty news-driven network, which was replaced on Moscow television screens by an all-sports channel. On the surface, the network fell victim to a successful legal campaign launched last year to liquidate it by a minority shareholder, the state-linked Lukoil petroleum giant.
But experts say because TV-6 was 75 percent owned by renegade tycoon and Kremlin opponent Boris Berezovsky, it sealed its own doom. The network's news team, led by prominent journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov, had been unsparing in its coverage of the war in Chechnya, official corruption, and inner-Kremlin intrigues. "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 can't get away with that."
Mr. Kiselyov and many of his TV-6 colleagues were journalistic refugees from last year's messy takeover of the independent NTV television network by Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas corporation. After Kiselyov was hired at TV-6 by Mr. Berezovsky, the network's ratings more than doubled and, experts say, its finances improved markedly. But Lukoil, using a Byzantine bankruptcy clause that has since been repealed by the state Duma, or the lower house of parliament, soon launched its suit to destroy the network.
"To liquidate a profitable company is like killing the goose that lays golden eggs," says Alexei Simonov, chairman of the Foundation in Defense of Glasnost, an independent media watchdog.
"There is no mistaking this situation: Lukoil was obeying political orders, not acting in its own business interests."
Last week a court ordered TV-6 disbanded and its license put up for auction in March. Press Minister Mikhail Lesin - notorious for his frequent heavyhanded interference in the workings of Russia's media market - suggested Kiselyov and his team might be permitted to remain at their jobs until March, then bid for ownership of the company if they cut Berezovsky out of the picture and immediately ended their struggle to remain in control of TV-6. Kiselyov at first accepted the deal, then baulked. Bailiffs moved in Monday night and pulled the network's plug. "It looks like some kind of television coup," Kiselyov told the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station. "The authorities have demonstrated that their single goal is to gag us."
Few Russians have sympathy for Berezovsky, a former Kremlin insider who pioneered the lawless slash-and-burn capitalism that nearly ruined Russia in the 1990s and who routinely exploited his media assets for self-promotion and political manipulation.
While the Kremlin says it wasn't involved in the NTV or TV-6 actions, Berezovsky did have a falling out with President Vladimir Putin - whom he had helped to bring to power - two years ago. "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."
The closure of TV-6 leaves most Russians without an easily accessible source of independent information. The country's two largest television networks are controlled outright by the state, while the third, NTV, has significantly toned down its news coverage since its takeover by Gazprom last year. "The main victims in this situation are television audiences, whose rights have been violated and trampled upon," the head of Russia's Union of Journalists, Igor Yakovenko, told Ekho Moskvy. According to Eduard Sagalayev, head of the Naitonal Association of TV Stations, 160 small regional television outlets that purchased programming from TV-6 will suffer serious business reverses due to the cutoff.
Even staunch supporters of TV-6 admit its closure does not spell the end of free expression in Russia, just its marginalization.
"The takeover of NTV, and now TV-6, are milestones in the Kremlin's campaign to place the biggest media outlets under state control," says Sergei Ivanenko, a liberal member of the Duma's information policy commission. "Freedom of speech continues to exist in Russia, just never in prime time."