Media Ministry closes national TV channel

New York, June 23, 2003
—The Russian Media Ministry issued a decree on Saturday, June 21, pulling the independent national television channel TVS off the air at midnight, replacing it with Sport TV, a state-run sports channel.

TVS, the only channel in Russia that has remained highly critical of the Kremlin, was paralyzed for months due to fierce competition between two groups of rival shareholders led by aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska and Anatoly Chubais, a reformist politician and head of Russia’s national electricity grid. Deripaska, who has close ties to the Kremlin, finally bought out Chubais in early June but failed to provide funds for the continued operation of the debt-ridden station.

TVS staff had not been paid in three months, and on June 18, TVS editor-in-chief Yevgeny Kiselyov accused shareholders of bankrupting the station to please the Kremlin.

Local media analysts questioned the legality of the decree—pointing out that a court order is required to take a station off the air—and the ministry’s decision to hand the channel over to Sport TV without holding a competitive tender.

An official at the ministry’s Registration and Licensing Administration contacted today by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) refused to comment on the decision.

This is the third time in recent years that Kiselyov and his team of hard-hitting independent journalists have been pulled off the air by government officials and Kremlin allies. Many Russian politicians and journalists believe that the campaign against TVS is part of a state-orchestrated effort to control citizens’ access to information ahead of the December parliamentary elections and March 2004 presidential elections.

In April 2001, the state-run Gazprom corporation staged a boardroom coup and ousted Kiselyov and his team from the national independent television station NTV. After their ouster, Kiselyov and many NTV journalists moved to the independent national television station TV-6, which the Media Ministry ordered off the air in January 2002 following a legal battle between the network and a subsidiary of the Russian oil company LUKOIL, a minority shareholder in TV-6 with strong ties to the Kremlin.

In March 2002, the Federal Tender Commission awarded TV-6’s broadcasting license to a partnership of journalists led by Kiselyov. Two Kremlin loyalists—former prime minister and senior KGB official Yevgeny Primakov and the influential industrial lobbyist Arkady Volsky—oversaw the new entity, which was renamed TVS. Despite the Kremlin connections, Kiselyov and his team managed to retain significant editorial autonomy and produce fairly critical news reports at TVS.

See also Russia: Parliament pases restrictive legal amendments, June 20.