Russia’s Media Ministry said it shut down TVS because of the station’s ongoing “financial, personnel and management crisis.”
“In this situation it was necessary to make a decision aimed at protecting the viewers’ interests,” the ministry said in a statement.
TVS’s mounting debts and infighting among shareholders prompted the station’s removal from Moscow’s main cable network earlier this month, Russian news agencies reported on Monday. Moscow authorities claimed the station failed to pay $8 million for cable carriage. TVS’s staffers had not been paid for three months, according to Russian media reports.
TVS is funded by a consortium of businessmen, including Unified Energy Systems head and former Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais and aluminum baron Oleg Deripaska.
Viewers watching TVS around midnight on Sunday saw a commercial abruptly end to be replaced by a notice saying: “Farewell. We have been taken off the air.”
Minutes later, the sports channel began its broadcasts.
The national state-run sports television, Sport TV, had been created several weeks ago in response to President Vladimir Putin’s plans for a national sports channel to promote physical fitness in Russia, according to Russian media reports.
Although the press ministry said the decision had not been “an easy one,” TVS executives and some journalists and liberal lawmakers contend the government’s action is indicative of its tightening grip on press freedoms in Russia.
TVS’s editor-in-chief Yevgeny Kiselyov said in an interview with Russia’s Interfax news agency he believed the government’s move was politically motivated.
“The channel might have closed for the most trivial, financial reason, but taking this step, they have added a political dimension to their decision,” Kiselyov said.
Kiselyov acknowledged the station’s end was likely imminent due to its severe economic woes, but said he believed powerful shareholders with connections to the Russian government had withheld money from the station to compel its closure.
“Everything that has happened to our team of journalists has been guided by absolutely clear motives,” Kiselyov told Ekho Moskvy, Russia’s top radio station. “I don’t know what I should do, laugh or cry.”
TVS was started following the closure of other major independent stations, NTV, in 2001, and TV-6, which was owned by self-exiled businessman and staunch Putin critic Boris Berezovsky, in June 2002. Soon after, many journalists, including Kiselyov, united to form TVS.
“The authorities have achieved what they have wanted — to destroy Kiselyov’s team,” Oleg Panfilov, president of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, told Russian media agencies.
With TVS’s demise, Russia’s three main television stations — Channel One, Rossiya, and NTV — are now all state-controlled.
Coming ahead of December’s parliamentary elections and the presidential election in March 2004, some officials questioned whether the state-run media would provide fair coverage of the candidates and campaigns.
“It is not an accident that all this occurred on the eve of elections. It is necessary to cement up fully the information field,” Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Union of Journalists, said.
Many Russian lawmakers, including Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyoz, blamed the station’s closure on the shareholder squabbles and financial dire straits, downplaying the allegations of censorship.
At the U.S. State Department, American officials expressed concern over Russia’s recent action and the state of its free press.
“We do very much continue to believe that the development and protection of an independent media are essential for Russia’s continuing political and economic development,” State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Monday during a press briefing. “Freedom of the press, I think, is ill-served by the closure of TVS.”
While not saying the closure was politically motivated, Reeker said the loss of TVS, coupled with TV-6’s closure in 2002 and the takeover of NTV in 2001 by the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom, created a disturbing trend.
“The fact that this TVS aired some of Russia’s most outspoken voices, [and] those previous actions that I cited — the earlier closures of NTV and TV6 — do lend this closure the appearance of possible political motivation,” he said.