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BBC Monitoring
Analysis: Fears for media freedom as Russia shuts independent TVS
Text of editorial analysis by BBC Monitoring Media Services on 25 June

Russia's press ministry issued a decree on 21 June taking the independent national TV channel TVS off the air and replacing it with Sport TV, a state-run sports channel.

The ministry said it had closed TVS "to protect the interests of television viewers," because the channel was embroiled in a financial and management crisis.

According to the ministry's statement, "this decision was not an easy one to make," but the authorities had "an obligation to defend the rights of television viewers and cannot allow a vacuum to be formed on a central television channel".

TVS staff had not been paid in three months. On 18 June, TVS editor-in-chief Yevgeniy Kiselev had accused shareholders of bankrupting the station to please the Kremlin.

This was the third time in recent years that Kiselev and his team of independent journalists had been taken off the air. Many TVS journalists had initially worked at NTV, which distinguished itself from the state-controlled channels with critical coverage of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya. In 2001, NTV passed from control of the press magnate Vladimir Gusinskiy into the hands of gas monopoly Gazprom after a takeover battle. The editorial team regrouped at another channel, TV6, whose licence was withdrawn in 2002, and then formed TVS.

Watchdogs fear for free media

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a statement that TVS had been "the only channel in Russia that has remained highly critical of the Kremlin".

The US watchdog recalled that TVS had been paralysed for months, owing to fierce competition between two groups of rival shareholders led by aluminium tycoon Oleg Deripaska and Anatoly Chubais, a reformist politician and head of Russia's national electricity grid. "Deripaska, who allegedly has close ties to the Kremlin, finally bought out Chubais in early June but failed to provide funds for the continued operation of the debt-ridden station," according to the CPJ.

"Many Russian politicians and journalists believe that the campaign against TVS is part of a state-orchestrated effort to control citizens' access to information ahead of the December parliamentary elections and February 2004 presidential elections," the CPJ statement added.

Another international media watchdog, Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), expressed its profound concern about the Russian government's permanent closure of the country's main independent TV news station, and also of the Duma's approval on 18 June of amendments to the electoral code that will severely restrict election campaign coverage. "These measures will seriously threaten the diversity and freedom of news coverage," RSF cautioned.

The US government, too, expressed the view that the closure of TVS could be motivated by political reasons and did not serve the interests of a free press.

"We do very much continue to believe that the development and protection of independent media are essential for Russia's continuing political and economic development. Freedom of the press, I think, is ill-served by the closure of TVS," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said on 23 June.

State monopoly of national channels

Media analysts in Moscow questioned the legality of the ministry's decree and the decision to hand TVS over to Sport TV without holding a competitive tender, noting that a court order was required to take a station off the air.

"What we have now is a complete state monopoly of countrywide channels," said the editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio station, Alexei Venediktov.

Russian newspapers also lamented the channel's demise. Izvestia predicted that national television would in future consist either of "entertainment channels or state channels", as in the Soviet era. And in its gloomy epitaph on the closure of TVS, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, controlled by self-exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovskiy, commented that "the brief but colourful era of non-state-controlled public television is over".

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