Kremlin bailiffs pull the plugs on last independent television network

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The Independent Online

Russia's last independent television network fell silent yesterday, in the culmination of a campaign orchestrated by the Kremlin to drive critical voices off the air.

Bailiffs sent by the Press Ministry pulled the plug at midnight on Monday on TV-6. Its coverage of the war in Chechnya and official corruption had angered the Kremlin, which handed its place on the airwaves to an all-sports station. Electricity and telephone services to the channel's Moscow studios were shut off along with all its broadcast links to 150 cities across Russia.

"It looks like some kind of television coup," said Yevgeny Kiselyov, the director of TV-6. "The authorities have demonstrated that their single goal is to gag us."

The TV-6 network, Russia's fourth largest, was 75 per cent owned by renegade financier Boris Berezovsky and staffed largely with journalists from NTV, the formerly independent television empire seized by the state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom amid a storm of protest last year.

Sergei Ivanenko, a liberal member of the state Duma's press commission, said: "What happened to NTV, and now to TV-6, is the clear result of a Kremlin effort to place all the biggest media outlets under state control."

The Kremlin denies any involvement and insists the takeovers of the two critical media outlets by state-connected firms have resulted from straightforward "business disputes". Mr Berezovsky, a former Kremlin insider who pioneered Russia's lawless, slash-and-burn style of capitalism, fell out with President Vladimir Putin and went into self-imposed exile last year.

TV-6 was brought down by a lawsuit filed by one of its minority shareholders, the state-connected Lukoil petroleum giant, which acted under an obscure bankruptcy rule, since repealed by the Duma (parliament). Last week a Moscow court ordered TV-6 liquidated, even though the network had shown a solid profit and had more than doubled its ratings in the past year. Alexei Simonov, chairman of the independent Foundation to Protect Glasnost, said: "There is no question that Lukoil was acting on political orders, and not pursuing its own business interests."

The Press Minister, Mikhail Lesin, who is notorious for his political meddling in the media, told TV-6 journalists at the weekend they might keep their jobs if they abandoned Mr Berezovsky and halted the company's legal struggle to survive. When the journalists rejected the deal he sent in the bailiffs.

Experts say the Kremlin's goal is not to restore Soviet-style censorship, but to set tame limits on criticism and debate in the media. After being taken over by Gazprom, NTV toned down its news coverage of sensitive topics and avoided criticising the Kremlin.

Yasen Zasursky, head of the journalism faculty at Moscow State University, said: "The closure of TV-6 will deprive Russians of access to information, and this will be bad for everyone in the long run. It is the death of choice in Russian TV."

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