Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Government Unplugs Petersburg TV

ST. PETERSBURG -- In response to a news report on Petersburg Television mocking liberal politicians and President Boris Yeltsin, the Press Ministry on Thursday shut the station down.

Press Minister Mikhail Lesin accused Petersburg Television of having thrown down "a demonstrative gauntlet" by re-broadcasting the report, which had already been formally protested once by his ministry.

Lesin pulled the plug at ten after midnight Thursday morning. Petersburg Television - which serves the roughly 6 million people of St. Petersburg and the surrounding Ireland-sized Leningrad region - went off the air in the middle of a sports program.

It was the first time in post-Soviet history that a major television channel had been shut down. St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev - who tightly controls the station, and who is part of a powerful anti-Kremlin political alliance - protested angrily.

"The St. Petersburg administration will do all it can to break through this information blockade of the city," Yakovlev said - using language sure to resonate in former Leningrad, where "breaking the blockade" harkens back to a 900-day Nazi siege that killed more than a million civilians.

The controversial news report was put together by a famous muckraking journalist, Alexander Nevzorov. It is a withering account of a St. Petersburg concert and youth rally organized by Right Cause, a loose coalition of liberal politicians that includes Duma Deputy Irina Khakamada and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.

Nevzorov's coverage of the concert emphasized the sordid. It alleged rampant drug abuse, showed police beating a drunk young man and revelled in the sight of teenage women taking off their tops and their bras.

Accompanying the lurid footage was narration that referred to Nemtsov as "a perestroika-era model who has adjusted his young curly-haired flesh for showing off political robes that the old couturier Yeltsin, rattling his rusty scissors, has made for him in the Kremlin." Khakamada, whose father was a Japanese communist who came to the Soviet Union, was said to call to mind "sake, sushi and the film 'The Seven Samurai.'"

Press Minister Lesin first protested Nevzorov's report earlier this week after it aired on national ORT television. In a written warning issued Monday, Lesin notified ORT it had "abused" its freedom of the press.

Lesin said Nevzorov's report offered "disrespect to viewers and to the people shown," was "insulting," and was aimed at "discrediting" a political bloc in the run-up to State Duma elections. He also complained that it violated the law by insulting the president; by insulting the national flag as "yawn-inducing;" and by not offering Nemtsov or Khakamada a chance to comment.

Lesin has warm ties with the Right Cause politicians. An advertising agency Lesin founded in 1990, Video International - Lesin no longer works there but says the agency is run by his "friends" - carried out the Right Cause's promotional campaign. And when Lesin was helping to run ORT's rival, state-owned RTR, liberals like Anatoly Chubais were always treated kindly on the air.

ORT has said it is reviewing the legality of Lesin's warning - the second rebuke Lesin's ministry has issued to ORT. The first came over the station's decision to broadcast an interview with Chechen warlord Khattab during the fighting last month in Dagestan.

Despite the warning, Petersburg Television - where the report originated - defiantly ran it again later Monday, as part of Nevzorov's controversial show "Politics - Petersburg Style."

On Tuesday, yet another rerun of the report was planned. Then Petersburg Television's director, Irina Prudnikova, received

a second verbal warning from Lesin's ministry. The report was hastily replaced by a 13-minute broadcast of Georges Bizet's ballet, "Crystal Palace." But the Press Ministry nevertheless pulled the plug.

According to Lesin, Petersburg Television can only go back on the air if it presents his ministry with a satisfactory "letter of explanation" and lays out steps to prevent future violations.

Governor Yakovlev, however, said Thursday the station was a victim of Lesin's political bias and its closure had "nothing to do with the law." Yakovlev is the No. 3 man in the State Duma elections list of Fatherland-All Russia, after former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

Prudnikova said she would meet with Deputy Press Minister Mikhail Seslavinsky on Friday to negotiate the future of the channel. She said she was ready to sacrifice Nevzorov's "Politics - St. Petersburg Style"

That show was slammed in February in an open letter to Governor Yakovlev signed by some of the city's leading cultural luminaries, including literary historian Dmitry Likhachyov and human rights defense lawyer Yury Schmidt. In all, 14 signatories of the letter complained that Nevzorov's show was smugly approving in its coverage of organized crime.

Petersburg Television used to be a national station called Channel 5 and was federally controlled. In the glasnost era, Channel 5 was arguably Russia's most daringly liberal and bold television station, and during the August 1991 coup it was the only national station broadcasting news.But its star reporter, Nevzorov, and his show "600 Seconds" rapidly came to champion a red-brown mix of nationalism and communism, and after the violence of October 1993, "600 Seconds" was shut down by the government. Nevzorov was elected to the Duma in 1995, and recently was named Yakovlev's media adviser.

Last year, President Yeltsin took away Channel 5's national broadcast network and transferred it to a new highbrow station, Kultura. Yakovlev received control of the remaining local network, renamed Petersburg Television.

On Yakovlev's watch, the speaker of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly was denied access to the airwaves during a feud with the governor, and his views were at times misrepresented. The station once suggested that allies of Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova - who was a Yakovlev critic until she was assassinated last fall - had sex with animals at Starovoitova's office.

A predecessor agency to Lesin's new Press Ministry, the Federal Press Committee, slapped Petersburg Television with an official warning on Aug. 6 over news shows asking viewers to call in and vote to advocate or oppose "ethnic cleansing" in St. Petersburg.

***Staff writer Kevin O'Flynn contributed to this report.***