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Last Updated: Monday, 23 June, 2003, 23:22 GMT 00:22 UK
'Killing off' Russia's independent TV

By Nikolai Gorshkov
BBC Moscow correspondent

On the night of 22 June Russian authorities switched off TVS - the last remaining privately owned national television channel in Russia.

Logo of the departed TVS television station
TVS came into being as a replacement for Boris Berezovsky's channel
Launched a year ago, it soon hit the financial rocks and stumbled on under the burden of debt. It could not pay for commissioned programmes, and staff went unpaid for months.

Amid wrangles among the channel's many owners, the Russian Press Ministry decided to put an end to this sorry state of affairs and simply pulled the plug.

But what looked like a sound business decision was seen by many as the last nail in the coffin of independent television in Russia.

'Nowhere to go'

TVS came into being as a replacement for TV6, a channel owned by the maverick tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who had fallen out with President Putin and went into a self-imposed exile in London.

TVS news director Yevgeny Kiselyov
News director Kiselyov alleges political motivation

His channel, in turn, was the last refuge for journalists from NTV, the pioneer of independent television in Russia.

NTV was highly critical of the Kremlin, and especially of the war in Chechnya, and its owner Vladimir Gusinsky was eventually forced into exile in Gibraltar.

NTV was taken over by Gazprom, a natural gas monopoly with strong links to the state.

In all three cases, Russian authorities cited the independent channels' financial problems as the only reason for the shake-up.

But each time the same team of highly professional - and highly independent-minded - journalists was repeatedly squeezed off air.

2001: NTV taken over by Gazprom; Kiselyov and colleagues leave for TV6
2002: TV6 taken off air; Kiselyov and colleagues found TVS
2003: TVS taken off air

Now, they have nowhere to go except to the state-run, or state-sponsored channels.

One of the leading members of the team, stand-up comedian Victor Shenderovich - famous for his biting satire of the Kremlin, and especially of its policies in Chechnya - told the BBC that he had been offered several jobs at those channels, provided he "does not put in jeopardy the channel's broadcasting licence".

The reaction of liberal-minded politicians was sharp.

"Now in Russia they will kill more, steal more, and half of the country will freeze next winter," said the leader of the centre-right SPS party, Boris Nemtsov.

"If the powers that be don't get an honest picture, they won't see the problems."

Pre-election manoeuvre?

Pro-Kremlin members of parliament also regretted the closure of TVS.

But they blamed it on the owners, who could not agree amongst themselves on financial and management issues.

Observers say the Kremlin wanted to make sure that no single "oligarch" was in full control of the channel, so the licence was given to a non-profit management body which was expected to raise funds from as many sponsors as possible.

As a result, no-one bothered to invest in the channel which belonged to everyone and no-one.

But that was the plot, said the General Secretary of the Union of Russian Journalists, Igor Yakovenko.

He added that "the unviable structure was set up so that this particular team of journalists died slowly and painfully".

"And the timing is obvious - it was essential to monopolise information prior to elections," Mr Yakovenko said.

Viewpoint: Russian deja-vu
22 Jan 02  |  Europe
End of run for Kremlin critic
01 Mar 03  |  Europe
Country profile: Russia
28 Dec 02  |  Country profiles

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