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Moscow Court Orders Independent Channel Closed

Moscow’s Higher Arbitration Court upheld an earlier decision to liquidate the station for failing to comply with financial regulations statutes, a court spokeswoman told Reuters.

The decision, which cannot be appealed within the Russian court system, stems from a bankruptcy suit brought last May by Lukoil-Garant, a pension fund owned by oil giant Lukoil.

Lukoil-Garant, which owns a 15 percent stake in TV6, asked a judge to close the station for failing to turn a profit. Lukoil-Garant is itself minority owned by the Russian government.

TV6 has the fourth-largest share of Russia’s television audience, even though its broadcasts do not reach all of the country.

Seventy-five percent of TV6’s shares are owned by Boris Berezovsky, a critic of the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin.

Berezovsky called the decision “pure politics” and vowed to take the case to Russia’s Constitutional Court, which operates separately from other Russian courts, or the European Court of Human Rights.

“The authorities are simply afraid to hear the truth about their crimes and are acting rather logically — trying to smother all sources of information which contradict their position,” Berezovsky told Ekho Moskvy radio.

Sergei Mironov, speaker of Russia’s Federation Council — the upper house of the Russian parliament — said he thought politics affected the TV6 decision “just as much as any economic issue.”

Mironov spokesman Dmitry Kuzov told Russia’s Interfax news agency the speaker did not believe the decision is a swipe at media freedoms in Russia.

“The freedom of speech is how a person feels inside rather than putting words in a cage,” Kuzov quoted Mironov as saying.

Reaction to the decision

The decision comes despite pressure from the U.S. and media watchdog groups who feared closing TV6 would hamper the dissemination of independent viewpoints in Russia.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer today said the Bush administration was “disappointed” in the court’s decision.

“It is unfortunate that there has been the strong appearance of political pressure on the courts during these proceedings,” Fleischer said.

“Development of a free media and steady, consistent movement toward the rule of law are critical elements in Russia’s transformation into a democratic, free market and increasingly prosperous nation,” he added.

Before the decision, the U.S. State Dept. had urged Russia to keep TV6 on the air.

Last April, Russian government-owned gas utility Gazprom took control of NTV, the last independent television network in the country with a full nation-wide reach. When the takeover occurred, many NTV journalists left for TV6, including influential executive and on-air host Yevgeny Kiselyov. He now heads the network.

“This is judicial tyranny, judicial revenge,” Kiselyov told Ekho Moskvy. Nonetheless, he said, he and his team would find another way to disseminate independent news after TV6’s shutdown — possibly through the Internet, or cable or satellite television.

TV6 spokeswoman Tatyana Blinova told the Associated Press a shareholder’s meeting Monday will decide plans for the liquidation. Station lawyers told the AP the station’s broadcast license should be pulled only after the dissolution, which must be complete within six months of the ruling.