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Friday, 11 January, 2002, 13:21 GMT
Russian media freedom 'under threat'
The Kremlin denies any attempt to muzzle the media
The Kremlin denies any attempt to muzzle the media
By Russian affairs analyst Stephen Dalziel

The decision by Russia's highest arbitration court to close down the last national independent television station TV-6 will have strong repercussions for media freedom.

The battle for TV-6 is beginning to look like another step towards state domination of Russia's independent television network.

The minority shareholder which applied for the closure - the oil company LUKoil - maintains that it acted solely on financial grounds, and the Kremlin denies any attempt to muzzle the media.

But the speed with which the case was rushed through appears to make such claims at best naive.

'No involvement'

When the media arm of the giant Russian gas company, Gazprom, took full control of the previously independent NTV last spring, President Vladimir Putin resisted all appeals to get involved, saying it was purely a financial affair.

NTV, it was claimed, was not a viable business, and Gazprom maintained that it could be saved only by a takeover by Gazprom-Media.

Officials from the gas company dismissed suggestions that it was any more than coincidence that Gazprom was partly state-owned.

Those journalists at NTV, who felt that the new owners would restrict their freedom to be critical of the Russian authorities when they believed it justified, were welcomed into TV-6 by its main shareholder Boris Berezovsky.

Mr Berezovsky had great political influence when Boris Yeltsin was president; but under Mr Putin he has fallen out of favour, and now lives in exile under threat of arrest should he return to Russia.

'Hasty ruling'

But the manner in which the case has been brought against TV-6 looks highly suspicious.

LUKoil is a minority shareholder, and is itself partly state-owned.

A law which came into effect on 1 January prevents minority shareholders from bringing bankruptcy proceedings against companies.

Yet, it looks as if the arbitration court has deliberately pushed ahead with LUKoil's complaint, before higher legal bodies have decided whether the new law applies retrospectively.

Dismissive statements by the Kremlin that - as with the NTV case - this is a matter of business, not politics, look increasingly implausible.

See also:

11 Jan 02 | Europe
Independent Russian TV shut down
16 Apr 01 | Europe
New blow against Gusinsky media
14 Apr 01 | Europe
Analysis: The battle for NTV
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