Russia's last independent television channel was shut down yesterday in a surprise court decision by judges in Moscow, underlining the Kremlin's determination to control the media.
The highest court of arbitration, acting with great speed and without giving reasons, ordered the TV-6 channel to be closed on the grounds that it is bankrupt. The station itself says it is profitable.
The majority shareholder in TV-6 is Boris Berezovsky, once a powerful oligarch influential in the Kremlin, who has since become a critic of President Vladimir Putin.
Last year TV-6 was handed over to a team of well-known television journalists who had left the NTV station when it was taken over by the state's gas monopoly Gazprom.
Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the Union of Right Forces party, said that the move was wholly political and discredited the court system in Russia. "Russia is moving in the direction of castrated democracy," he said. "The international anti-terror campaign will soon be over and then international opinion will remember about freedom of expression."
Though the independent TV-6 has not been particularly critical of Mr Putin, the Kremlin has been unrelenting in its campaign against it.
Yevgeny Kiselyov, the general director of the channel and a well-known television presenter, said all compromise had been rejected and the court had acted "super-quickly", which showed that influential forces wanted to kill off TV-6. He claimed the judges had "carried out a contract killing on a television company".
The case against TV-6 was brought by Lukoil-Garant, the pension fund of Lukoil, the huge oil company that is closely linked to the government.
Lukoil-Garant, which owns 15 per cent of TV-6, has fought a series of court battles since May last year to prove that the channel was bankrupt and that Mr Berezovsky should not have appointed a new management under Mr Kiselyov.
After the decision, Geraline Lyubarskaya, a lawyer for TV-6, said: "There is no one to appeal to.... We can only ask God for help." Ms Lyubarskaya also noted that the case had been heard out of turn and that yesterday's court session had not been previously scheduled.
Yakov Zasursky, a professor of journalism at Moscow University, said: "This is not only a blow against freedom of expression but also a blow against the court system." He added that if the case had really been about the economic state of the TV station, the normal procedure would have been for volumes of evidence to be presented to the court.
Mr Berezovsky, speaking from abroad on Echo Moskvi radio, reacted furiously to the closure. "This is pure politics," he said. "The authorities are vicious and criminal."
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