June 23, 2003
Press Ministry Pulls the Plug on TVS
By Anna Dolgov
Special to The Moscow Times
The Press Ministry pulled the plug on financially beleaguered TVS television Sunday, replacing its often critical newscasts with the all-sports programming of the new state-controlled channel Sport.
TVS was the last private national channel, and its closure gives the Kremlin a monopoly on the airwaves ahead of December's parliamentary elections and the March presidential vote.
"I have a feeling that somebody really needs what is happening," TVS chief editor Yevgeny Kiselyov said by telephone. "I have a persistent feeling that the events are guided by somebody's evil will."
TVS's demise follows the 2001 takeover of NTV television by government-connected parties and last year's closure of Boris Berezovsky's TV6. Following the NTV takeover, most of its prominent journalists, led by Kiselyov, fled to TV6, and after it was shut down, they formed TVS.
The Press Ministry said it ordered that TVS be closed because of is longtime financial problems. "In this situation it was necessary to make a decision aimed at protecting the viewers' interests," the ministry said in a statement.
Critics brushed off the explanation as hypocritical and said the closure was illegal. Under the law, a television channel can be shut down only by a court decision, not a Press Ministry order, said Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.
"The authorities have achieved what they have wanted -- to destroy Kiselyov's team," Panfilov said. "They have been working at it for 3 1/2 years in a very consistent manner."
Media-Sotsium, which holds TVS's broadcasting license, said it would fight the Press Ministry decision. Media-Sotsium director Oleg Kiselyov told Ekho Moskvy radio that the ministry had no right to take TVS off the air over its financial problems.
TVS has been in dire straits for months, plagued not only by financial troubles but also management disputes and a legal dispute with TV6's former owner, MNVK, over its broadcasting license. The channel is funded by a consortium of businessmen, including Unified Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais and aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska. But the group has been torn apart by internal disputes, while TVS finances continued to decline.
Spokesmen for Chubais and Deripaska refused to comment Sunday.
A loan of $50 million from state-owned Vneshekonombank has been nearly used up, and TVS journalists and technical staff have gone without pay for three months. TVS deputy chief Galina Segodina was appointed acting general director Friday and assigned the task of sorting out wage arrears, TVS spokeswoman Tatyana Blinova said.
Moscow city authorities pulled TVS off its cable network earlier this month, claiming the channel had failed to pay $8 million for cable services. TVS representatives insist they are being overcharged.
Yevgeny Kiselyov predicted last week that TVS would likely go off the air nationwide on Monday because of money problems. In an 11th-hour attempt to salvage the channel, he sent a letter to shareholders urging them to pay back wages. He said he received no response. "I think their silence is quite eloquent," Kiselyov said. "I personally have no hope" of TVS's survival.
TVS went off the air at midnight and was replaced with sports broadcasting Sunday morning. Sport television was created a few weeks ago by the government in response to a call by President Vladimir Putin for a national sports channel that would encourage Russians to get more physically fit.
Picking Sport to replace TVS was illegal, said Alexei Samokhvalov, who helped draft federal regulations on broadcasting licenses and heads the National Research Center of Television and Radio. "Why does this particular channel suddenly get the opportunity to broadcast?" he said. "It participated in no tenders [for the broadcasting license]. Maybe there also are others who want to broadcast on this frequency."
The license is technically held by MNVK, while TVS has been broadcasting under a temporary permit in a Press Ministry arrangement that conforms to no Russian law, he said.
MNVK board member Igor Shabdurasulov said Sunday that Berezovsky might soon give up his 75 percent stake in the company, Interfax reported.
Shabdurasulov said MNVK is holding talks with Sport but ruled out the sale of the stake to a state entity. He made it clear, however, that MNVK would not contest Sport's use of the frequency.
"We are now negotiating with Sport to legalize our preliminary agreements," he said, adding that Sport's appearance on the frequency had been cleared earlier with MNVK. Shabdurasulov said a deal would be reached by July 7.
Speaking on Ekho Moskvy, Berezovsky refused to confirm whether he would sell his MNVK stake and referred all questions to Shabdurasulov.
He said talk about a possible new buyer was secondary to the fact that "the last television channel that is independent of the state has been destroyed."
Blinova suggested that the shutdown was prompted by authorities' fears that a nonstate channel might promote opposition views in the State Duma and presidential elections. "I can't imagine that we were saying something so terribly deplorable," she said. "But apparently we were or, worse still, might have."
Politicians offered mixed views about TVS's demise Sunday.
Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov said infighting among its shareholders was to blame, Interfax reported.
The liberal Union of Right Forces, or SPS, party issued a statement condemning the shutdown and calling for Press Minister Mikhail Lesin to be held responsible for "violating Russian laws."
Deputy SPS head Boris Nadezhdin said the shutdown "was the logical continuation of the Kremlin's policy toward independent media."
He and SPS leader Boris Nemtsov said they had little doubt that TVS's criticism of the authorities played a role in its demise.
Deputy Yabloko head Sergei Ivanenko said the closure ended illusions that "oligarchs can make a TV channel independent of the authorities by privatizing it," Interfax reported.
Communists also condemned the shutdown.
Pro-Kremlin centrists said they regretted it, but they were careful not to blame the authorities. "There is nothing you can do about it if it turns out that the Press Ministry had good cause," deputy Unity chief Oleg Kovalyov told Interfax.