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Russia Takes Last Independent TV Network Off the Air - 2002-01-22

Russia has taken the country's last independent television network off the air, giving complete control of television news to government-owned entities for the first time in the post-Soviet era. The closure of TV6 has renewed the debate on media freedom in Russia.

TV6 stopped broadcasting just after the stroke of midnight and abruptly switched to all sports programming on most of the 150 stations in its network.

In St. Petersburg, Russia's second city, the TV6 affiliate broadcast Swan Lake, the ballet that appeared on television when Soviet hard-liners launched an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1991.

The closure came only hours after the journalists of TV6 backed out of a promise to sever ties with maverick station owner and Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky. TV6 general-director Yevgeny Kiselyov said his station had made the promise to the government under pressure and could not possibly follow through with it.

A court order, issued January 11, had called for TV6 to shutdown after a station shareholder, a company partly controlled by the Russian government, complained that the network was losing money.

But Tuesday, Mr. Kiselyov said the government's action in closing the channel showed their true intent.

He said the authorities have shown clearly that they do not like this team of journalists, and rudely cut them off in mid-sentence. That is how democracy and a civil society are being built in this country, he said.

The government insists it has had nothing to do with putting TV 6 off the air. President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials say they personally support the journalists in their battle to keep broadcasting their programs.

Russia's Media Minister Mikhail Lesin announced that TV6's broadcasting license will be put up for sale on March 27 and that anybody, including the TV6 team would be allowed to compete for it.

Mr. Lesin said there would be no conditions and no limitations on the applicants. He said he hopes that the competition for the license will bring an end to "this unfortunate story for the journalists of TV6."

But the journalists doubt they will ever be given a fair chance to compete. General Director Kiselyov said the government would manage to find a way to bar them from the process. His colleague, TV6 anchorwoman Mariana Maximovskaya, agreed saying the Kremlin's intentions are clear.

It is absolutely obvious, she said, that the current Russian authorities and President Putin personally do not want non-state television in Russia.

The journalists of TV 6 say despite their reservations, they will be competing for the license and in the meantime will continue their programs on the Moscow radio channel Echo Moskvy and on the Internet.