Observers both inside and outside Russia have been reacting to the decision handed down Friday (January 11) by the Higher Arbitration upholding an order to liquidate the Moscow Independent Broadcasting Corporation (MNVK), the parent company of TV-6, Russia’s last major national private television network. Friday’s decision marked a victory for Lukoil-Garant, the pension fund of Lukoil, Russia’s largest oil company, which owns 15 percent of MNVK. Lukoil-Garant sued last year to have the MNVK liquidated, charging that it had been operating at a loss and was essentially bankrupt. MNVK’s majority shareholder, Boris Berezovsky, and TV-6’s managers and journalists say that the channel has become profitable. They charge that Lukoil-Garant, in seeking to liquidate MNVK and TV-6, has acted as a proxy for the Kremlin, which is seeking to stamp out Russia’s remaining independent media.
Some of Russia’s liberal politicians share that view. Following the Higher Arbitration Court’s decision, Grigory Yavlinsky, head of Yabloko, made a statement that the verdict confirmed “the worst fears for the fate of independent media in Russia” and was part of a trend that included last year’s takeover of NTV television by the state-controlled Gazprom natural gas monopoly and the prosecution of Grigory Pasko, the military journalist and environmental activist. (Pasko was sentenced to four years in a labor camp last December after being found guilty of gathering information on secret military exercises with the intention of passing it on to Japanese journalists.) Yavlinsky charged that courts routinely ignore “the rights of citizens to freely receive and distribute information, which are envisaged in Article 29 of the constitution” and warned that the liquidation of TV-6 would spark “a chain reaction of persecutions of independent media in the regions” (Yabloko.ru, January 11). Liberal Russia, the movement financed by Berezovsky, also released a statement condemning the court decision upholding TV-6’s liquidation, calling it “a powerful blow against free speech, the judicial system and governmental authority itself, and, most important, against the interests of all citizens of Russia without exception.” Among those who signed the Liberal Russia statement were two of its leaders Sergei Yushenkov and Viktor Pokhmelkin, both of whom are State Duma deputies, and Berezovsky (SMI.ru, January 12). The Union of Journalists of Russia called the ruling on TV-6 “a mockery… of any idea of justice and law” that would have “far-reaching consequences for media freedom” (AP, January 11).
Several observers said that the move against TV-6 made a mockery of the Kremlin-backed initiatives to help strengthen Russia’s judiciary and make it truly independent of the country’s other branches of power. Aleksei Venediktov, chief editor of Radio Ekho Moskvy, said it was “simply laughable” to talk about judicial reform. “It is obvious that the courts here are not an independent branch of power, but rather part of the presidential vertical,” Venediktov said, adding that the decision liquidating TV-6 clearly would not enhance the image of Russia’s courts among ordinary Russians. Boris Nemtsov, head of the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) said that, following the TV-6 decision, “any talk about the independence of Russia’s judicial system will not be possible without an ironic smile” (Moscow Times, January 14; Moskovsky Komsomolets, January 12; Radio Ekho Moskvy, January 11). Likewise, Yevgeny Kiselev, TV-6’s general director, said during last night’s airing of Itogi, the weekly news analysis program he hosts, that Friday’s court decision had “demonstrated to the world that there is not a legal system in Russia” (TV-6, January 13).
There was also criticism from abroad, with the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush saying it was “disappointed” by the decision. “It is unfortunate that there has been the strong appearance of political pressure on the courts during these proceedings,” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said in a statement. From U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher: “Freedom of the press and promotion of the rule of law are best served by allowing TV-6 to remain on the air” (AP, January 11). The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists was “gravely concerned” over the verdict upholding MNVK’s liquidation. The committee’s executive director, Ann Cooper, said that the court decision was “a political move rather than a shareholder dispute” and that the final liquidation of TV-6 was “a great blow to independent journalism in Russia” (CPJ.org, January 11). Donald Anderson, chairman of the British parliament’s international affairs committee, one of the heads of NATO’s parliamentary assembly and a member of the Labor Party, said that British Prime Minister Tony Blair was right to have sought closer relations with President Vladimir Putin. He added, however, that the TV-6 decision was causing “great anxiety” and that Moscow should understand its “friends in the West are very concerned about the situation surrounding TV-6” (Kommersant, January 14).
BEREZOVSKY SUGGESTS TV-6 WILL APPEAL.