New York, January 11, 2002—CPJ is gravely concerned over today's ruling by the Presidium of the Highest Arbitration Court upholding the liquidation of the Moscow Independent Broadcasting Company (MNVK), parent company of Russia's only independent, nationwide television channel, TV-6.
The suit was originally lodged in September by the pension fund of LUKoil-Garant, a minority shareholder in TV-6. LUKoil-Garant is a subsidiary of the giant LUKoil Corporation, which owns 15 percent of TV-6. The Russian industrial magnate Boris Berezovsky, who is a bitter opponent of President Vladimir Putin, owns 75 percent of the station, either outright or through other companies that he controls. Originally, the Moscow Arbitration Court ruled to close MNVK on the basis of an obscure Russian law that prohibits companies from running a deficit for more than two years. TV-6 appealed, and though a Moscow appellate court upheld the liquidation in November, another appeal from TV-6 led to a ruling in the station's favor on December 29. However, as of January 1, 2002, the Russian parliament repealed a law that allowed shareholders to liquidate their own companies, thus eliminating the legal basis for proceedings against TV-6.
But on January 4, the deputy chairman of the Highest Arbitration Court, Eduard Remov, disputed the December decision and filed a protest with the Presidium of the Highest Arbitration Court, which upheld the television company's liquidation today.
The Arbitration Court rejected TV-6's argument against liquidation. Instead, Judge Remov argued that since the original ruling came while the shareholder liquidation law was still in force, LUKoil's claim was valid and should be upheld.
Although TV-6 has exhausted all appeals with the Russian arbitration court system, the station plans to appeal the case to the Russian Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights, according to local and international news reports.
"The final liquidation of TV-6 is a great blow to independent journalism in Russia," CPJ executive director Ann Cooper said today. "It seems clear that this was a political move rather than a shareholder dispute."
Justice or vendetta?
On Wednesday, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated, "We continue to urge Russian officials to ensure that TV-6 gets a full and fair hearing and ensure that press freedom and the rule of law can be best served by keeping TV-6 on the air," said Boucher, according to The Associated Press.
The TV-6 case is strikingly similar to the recent hostile takeover of the independent television network NTV by Gazprom, a state-dominated oil and gas monopoly.
NTV came under fire from the Kremlin for its outspoken coverage of Chechnya and other sensitive issues, which often contradicted official propaganda. Immediately following the April 2001 takeover, many high-profile NTV journalists joined TV-6. Since then, the station's ratings have improved greatly.
Although TV-6 has up to six months to complete the liquidation, the Ministry of Information and Press could take away the station's broadcasting license at any moment. On January 14, MNVK will hold a shareholder meeting to set a time frame for liquidating TV-6's assets.