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Kremlin Shuts Down TV Station

January 22, 2002|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Russian authorities blacked out private television station TV6 today, pulling the plug mid-broadcast in what critics called a bid to silence the last national broadcaster willing to challenge the Kremlin and President Vladimir V. Putin.

Mass Communications Minister Mikhail Y. Lesin said he had no choice but to close down TV6 after a court ordered the station's license revoked late Monday, but the explanation drew cynical comments from analysts and the staff.

"The Kremlin is preparing for the next presidential election, and it wants all four federal channels singing the same tune of loyalty and approval," said Igor M. Klyamkin, director of the Institute of Sociological Analysis, a Russian think tank.

He predicted a chill will be felt by any who think of questioning central authority.

"The Kremlin demonstrated to every mass medium, to every journalist, that it can close down a major television channel just like that," he said.

The revocation left Russia for the first time since 1991 without a national broadcaster consistently willing to challenge the Kremlin line. The remaining channels are either owned or controlled by the state or focus on entertainment.

TV6 was staffed largely by journalists and others who resigned in April from another station, NTV, when it was taken over by the government-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom. In the past nine months, the staff transformed the little-watched TV6, boosting its ratings so that they often surpassed those of the state-owned ORT and RTR networks.

But TV6's legal troubles mounted, adding to the belief that they had more to do with politics than business.

The decision to close TV6 culminated a campaign by a minority shareholder, the Lukoil pension fund, which won a court order Jan. 11 to liquidate the station based on an obscure and rarely enforced debt law that was changed after the case was filed.

Until Monday, the Mass Communications Ministry had been hinting that the station could go on broadcasting and that its staff would acquire a new license if it broke with TV6's owner, self-exiled oligarch Boris A. Berezovsky.

But the channel was shut off just after midnight in the midst of "Nightingale's Night," while a presenter was singing folk ballads with his guest. First the screen went blank. That was followed by a test pattern, and then it went blank for good.

"The speed and efficiency with which these people operate is incredible, especially in the country where hundreds, if not thousands, of people are sitting in prison for months and years waiting for trial," said network spokeswoman Tatyana Blinova. She said the station would have to wait until daytime to try to get the shutdown reversed.

Anchor Svetlana Sorokina, one of the country's best-liked news personalities, sounded dejected in an early-morning telephone interview.

"I am sitting here looking at the black screen, and I know the worst has happened, but it is still hard to believe and even harder to accept," she said. "Well, for me it means that I have lost my job. And most likely my career in television."

*

Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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