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Russian authorities put sport before press freedoms

: Natalia Rostova  

After months of infighting between the owners of TVS, the only independent nationwide television network, the channel was taken off air early Sunday morning and replaced with a state-run sports channel, a move ''aimed at protecting the viewers' interests'', the Press Ministry claimed. The new channel is ''socially important'', the ministry said. At the same time, a socially unimportant team of 2,500 television employees has lost their jobs for the third time in as many years.

Pushing Yevgeniy Kiselyov and his team off the air has turned into something of a pastime for the state authorities. Over the past three years the authorities have, every once in while, pulled the plug on Kiselyovs team, summoning the help of courts, using disputes between economic entities, and citing a ''financial, staff, structural and management crisis'' at TVS.

In 2001 Yevgeniy Kiselyovs team was forced to leave the NTV channel after it was seized from Vladimir Gusinsksys media empire Media-Most by the state-controlled gas giant Gazprom over debts. In early 2002 the former NTV journalists, who had found shelter at Boris Berezovskys TV6, were forced to leave again, after a court ruled on the closure of TV6s parent company over poor financial performance. The lawsuit was initiated at the request of LUKoil, a minority shareholder.

And this Sunday, June 22, the Press Ministry took TVS off the air, replacing it with round-the-clock sports broadcasting. In all those cases the authorities claimed the channels had only themselves to blame for their financial difficulties and poor management. However, journalists and independent observers charged that those moves were politically motivated and aimed at quenching press freedoms.

This time there will be no new channel, said Kiselyov. He will not take part in any more tenders for any broadcasting frequency, even if bids are invited. That means there will be no more disputes between the Kremlin and dissident channels, posing a danger to Vladimir Putins rating by their critical coverage of events. By unplugging TVS the Kremlin has secured complete control of the airwaves.

In its official statement released on Sunday the Press Ministry explained it had ruled on the closure of the channel due to its longstanding financial problems. ''In this situation it was necessary to make a decision aimed at protecting the viewers interests,'' the statement reads.

The Press Ministry speaks of a crisis in the company, but the company is privately owned and did not waste government funds. Independent observers and journalists claim the ministrys decision was unlawful since only a court ruling can terminate broadcasting. Media-Socium, the non-commercial partnership that holds the channels broadcasting licence said on Sunday it would contest the decision. Director general of Media-Socium Oleg Kiselyov told Ekho Moskvy radio that the ministry had no right to take TVS off the air.

By replacing TVSs news and socio-political programmes, known for their critical stance, with a sports channel, Press Minister Mikhail Lesin seems to assume that audiences are just as interested in Yevgeniy Kiselyovs weekly Itogi show, as they are in boat-racing. However, TV ratings prove that it is not so. When the NTV Plus sports channel temporarily replaced the old TV6 last spring in time for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, the 6th channels rating slumped considerably.

TVSs Moscow viewers were the first to have their interests infringed. As early as June 1 Mostelekom, the Moscow authorities own cable network, began taking TVS off the air in the capital. However, the Press Ministry did not take any immediate action, ignoring both Mostelekoms move and a court ruling that Lesins earlier order on closing TV6, owned by the Berezovsky-controlled MNVK [Moscow Independent Broadcasting Corporation], was unlawful.

Now Lesins agency says that it has attempted to take into account ''the legal aspects of the problem, linked with the court decisions on claims by JSC MNVK''. But the ministry has not said a single word as to why TVS has been replaced by a sports channel, and not by TV6.

Clearly, TV6 is not able to start running a programme schedule right away: all its journalists left the channel in early 2002 in order to set up TVS. Ever since it won the tender for the right to broadcast on the 6th metre frequency, TVS had been broadcasting under a temporary permit, while formally the licence was still held by TV6s owner MNVK. At the same time, the Sport channel, which occupied the disputed frequency on Sunday, legally, has no right to broadcast on it either.

To continue broadcasting, Sport will have to enter into an agreement with MNVK, the chairman of that companys liquidation commission, Pavel Chernovalov, has told Interfax. According to Chernovalov, MNVK anticipated such a decision by the Press Ministry. ''The licence for [broadcasting on] the 6th channel belongs to MNVK and TVS broadcast on it unlawfully, which was directly or indirectly confirmed by a whole series of court decisions,'' Chernovalov said.

Cherenovalov confirmed that MNVK is negotiating an agreement with Sport, under which the company will entitle the sports channel to broadcast on the 6th frequency pending TV6s return. Chernovalov expressed hope that the agreement to the effect would be signed before June 25.

23 15:21


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