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TV Station Closure Raises Questions About Russian Press Freedom - 2003-06-26

Russia's last private national television channel, TVS, was forced to shut down earlier this week, and was immediately replaced by the new state-controlled channel Sport. Analysts say the way the closure came about is raising questions about whether the government is moving to stifle independent media ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

The Russian Press Ministry announced the closure of TVS on Monday in the official government newspaper, saying the station was having financial difficulties, as well as management problems. It also alluded to taking audience opinion into account, but declined to elaborate.

With the demise of TVS, there are no longer any independent television stations in Russia. In recent years, two other stations - NTV and TV-6 - that were once independent have either been taken over by the government or closed.

Vasily Perfiryev is the deputy chief of the media partnership that holds TVS' broadcasting license. Mr. Perfiryev ridiculed the ministry's explanation as absolute stupidity, and said the whole situation smacks of politics. He has also vowed to contest the Press Ministry action in the courts.

Mr. Perfiryev says he has no doubt the closure is connected to the December parliamentary elections, as well as next year's presidential vote. He says the reason the Press Ministry can't fully explain its action is because, as he put it, it's illegal. Mr. Perfiryev says his partnership, Media-Sotsium (Society), has an official state license to broadcast on the frequency, which, he points out, no one has taken away.

Mr. Perfiryev adds that, by law, a television station may only be shut down by court order. As such, he said, he is confident his group will confirm its right to broadcast after what he acknowledges will likely be a long, drawn-out fight. But Mr. Perfiryev says Media-Sotsium is ready for the struggle.

The director of an independent media group, the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, Oleg Panfilov, also doubts the government's explanation for closing TVS. He says many mass media representatives in Russia have financial problems. But he says that does not give the government license to shut them down.

Using newspapers as an example, Mr. Panfilov says that only three papers in Russia are considered independent and profitable. All the others, he said, are in dire financial shape, but still operating. Mr. Panfilov says that leads him to believe that the TVS closure can only be about politics and abuse of power.

Mr. Panfilov adds that Russia has an international obligation to support independent mass media, especially as President Vladimir Putin and his officials say they seek to move Russia closer to Europe.

Mr. Panfilov also suggests that TVS never was a serious threat to government-controlled media, attracting only five to 10 percent of Russian television viewers. But he says even that is apparently too much for the Russian leadership, which he alleges is afraid of any unpredictable variable in an election year.

VOA sought additional government comment about the closure through the Russian Press Ministry that took the action. But ministry officials declined to be interviewed, saying only that the decision was very complicated.

While many critics are describing the closure of TVS as the death knell for independent media in Russia, Mr. Panfilov says Russia never has had any semblance of a totally free, non-state-controlled media, as in the West. He says even more than 10 years since the end of communism in Russia, the leaders of the country are still not comfortable with a free media.

Three days after TVS was shut down, Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, approved legislation allowing the government to shut down any media outlet for election coverage allegedly deemed biased. Backers of the legislation said it was meant to curb so-called propaganda. A first violation would result in a fine, while the second would bring a suspension until the end of the election campaign.

The bill still needs to be signed by President Putin to become law.

A media rights watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, this week voiced concern over the new legislation, as well as the closure of TVS. The group said the measures will seriously threaten the diversity and freedom of news coverage in Russia, especially during the upcoming elections.