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Russia's Last Free Channel Dealt a Blow

Media: Higher court rules that the TV station is insolvent and must be liquidated. Critics say the Kremlin is cracking down on free speech.

January 12, 2002|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — The only Russian television network that consistently airs criticism of President Vladimir V. Putin lost a pivotal fight for survival Friday when the Supreme Arbitration Court upheld a ruling that the station is insolvent and must be liquidated.

The decision against TV6 triggered a new outcry that the Kremlin is prodding the judiciary to silence any media critic of nationwide reach.

"It's just laughable to talk about an independent judicial system in our country now," said Boris Y. Nemtsov, an opposition parliamentary leader.

The Bush administration has treated the case as a test of Russian democracy. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told Kremlin leaders here last month that he wanted the network's fate decided without political interference, and to show his support for TV6, he granted the station's general manager, Yevgeny Kiselyov, an on-air interview.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday that "there's a strong appearance of political pressure" in the TV6 case, resulting in "unusually rapid developments . . . at high judicial levels where legal action usually takes months."

In Friday's ruling, the 13 arbitration judges concurred with a lawsuit by one of the network's minority shareholders, the Lukoil petroleum company, which is partly owned by the government.

Lukoil, which says the dispute is purely commercial, used an obscure law that grants shareholders the right to dissolve a company if its net worth falls below a certain level for two years. TV6 says its net worth plunged in 1998 but rebounded last year, when the lawsuit was filed, and now exceeds the legal level.

TV6 remained on the air Friday, its 1,200 employees going about their tasks in a state of disbelief. The ruling didn't affect its broadcast license but set a May 26 deadline for a state-supervised liquidation.

Case Allegedly Decided Before Hearing

"It is not clear how the liquidation will be carried out--whether the TV screen will go black or the channel will simply change hands and be run by a different owner," Dmitry Shtokolov, a TV6 correspondent, said in a live report from a snowy sidewalk outside court headquarters.

Off camera, he said a court security guard had asked him before Friday's hearing why he had bothered to come. "The case is already decided," the guard told him.

"My heart went numb," the 26-year-old journalist said.

TV6 spokeswoman Tatyana Blinova said the network may challenge the ruling in Russia's Constitutional Court on the grounds that the arbitration judges ignored an amendment to the bankruptcy law underpinning the case. The change, effective Jan. 1, bars minority shareholders from initiating bankruptcy proceedings.

"If you measure Russian companies by the standards of this law, most of them would perish," said Pavel Korchagin, the network's deputy director. "The essence of this case is that we are independent from the state and the state can never rely on our loyalty."

TV6's dissolution would mean the silencing of two independent broadcast voices in less than a year.

After the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom wrested control of NTV from media tycoon Vladimir A. Gusinsky in April, many of that network's journalists moved to TV6. The journalists claim that Putin engineered the takeover to silence the independent outlet.

Boris A. Berezovsky, a business tycoon who owns 75% of TV6's stock, took in the NTV team and allows Gusinsky to manage TV6 from Spain. Both Gusinsky and Berezovsky, who rose to financial power after the Soviet collapse and are fierce critics of Putin, have fled Russia rather than face what they call politically inspired criminal charges.

The influx of NTV talent has helped double TV6's share of the Russian audience, vaulting it ahead of NTV and slightly behind both state-owned networks, ORT and RTR. General manager Kiselyov is host of television's highest-rated program, the weekly political talk show "Itogi."

TV6 has also profited from a popular thrice-daily series called "Behind the Glass," Russia's first foray into reality TV, in which young contestants living in a downtown Moscow apartment shed their clothes and cavort before cameras.

TV6 Newscasts Took a More Subtle Approach

But it is the network's newscasts that irritate the Kremlin. Although NTV had openly criticized Putin's conduct of the war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, TV6's newscasts are more cautious and subtle but still hit home.

Recent footage from the Black Sea city of Sochi showed residents complaining that a snowstorm had blacked out every building in town for three days--except a Kremlin resort where Putin skis.

Two lower arbitration courts decided against the network last fall. Then, surprisingly, an appeals court overruled them Dec. 29. Lukoil appealed, prompting a lightning-fast decision by the Supreme Arbitration Court to review the case Friday. Its open hearing lasted one hour, followed by 70 minutes of closed-door deliberations.

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