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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Court Orders Closure of TV6

In what is widely seen as a blow to media freedom in Russia, the country's top arbitration court Friday ordered the closure of TV6, the last national television network outside the government's control.

The decision, ending a closely watched eight-month legal battle, is the second major defeat for a group of prominent journalists who worked at the NTV channel and fought its April takeover by state-controlled Gazprom. After the takeover, they joined TV6, a smaller station that is majority-owned by Boris Berezovsky.

The judges of the Higher Arbitration Court made their Friday ruling in response to a bankruptcy suit brought by minority shareholder LUKoil-Garant, a pension fund owned by LUKoil. LUKoil-Garant, which holds a 15 percent stake in TV6 and which is itself minority-owned by the state, demanded the station be liquidated because it failed to bring a profit.

Judge Eduard Renov told Interfax that TV6 should be liquidated because for three years it had operated in violation of a law requiring that a company's assets balance out its debts.

But TV6 maintains that whatever problems the company once had, it is now profitable, and argues that a new law that took effect this year bans minority shareholders from bringing bankruptcy proceedings against a company. LUKoil lawyers argued that the decision should be made under the old law, since they initiated proceedings last year.

TV6 journalists and lawyers accused the judges of carrying out the Kremlin's orders in a bid to eliminate critical voices.

"This is judicial tyranny, judicial revenge," TV6 director Yevgeny Kiselyov said on Ekho Moskvy radio.

The case has prompted international concern about media freedom in Russia. Of Russia's four major networks, TV6 provides the most critical reporting about President Vladimir Putin and the war in Chechnya -- a role that NTV played before the takeover.

In Washington, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer issued a statement Friday said the U.S. administration was "disappointed" by the decision. "It is unfortunate that there has been the strong appearance of political pressure on the courts during these proceedings," he said.

The Russian Journalists Union said Friday's ruling would harm television stations across the country that broadcast TV6 and have "far-reaching consequences for media freedom."

Yevgeny Volk, a Moscow-based political analyst with the Heritage Foundation, warned: "The examples of NTV and TV6 have forced many journalists to practice self-censorship."

Those who defected to TV6 from NTV -- including some of the country's most popular and experienced journalists -- were criticized at the time for allying themselves with Berezovsky.

Berezovsky was influential in Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin, but has fallen out of favor under President Vladimir Putin. TV6's association with the tycoon may have speeded its downfall, Volk said. Berezovsky lives abroad evading corruption charges he says are politically motivated.

Friday's decision Friday is final, although lawyers for the station said they may ask the Constitutional Court or the European Court of Human Rights to rule on its legality.

Further decisions on how TV6 will be dissolved will be made during a shareholder meeting scheduled for Monday, station spokeswoman Tatyana Blinova said.

The station was still broadcasting Friday, and TV6 lawyers said its broadcast license should be annulled only after the liquidation, which must be carried out within six months of the first appeals ruling, made in November.

LUKoil-Garant reiterated Saturday that it wanted to bid for the station's broadcasting license and might hire back some of TV6's journalists.

"The fund is ready to join efforts with the TV6 staff for participation in this tender [for the license] and, in the case of victory, hand over a considerable package of shares to the personnel for joint work to create a new image of the channel," the fund said in a statement.

The statement did not elaborate on what it meant by a "new image" or give any details.

There was no comment from the Kremlin on Friday's decision. But Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, who is accused of helping orchestrate the NTV takeover, issued a statement Friday congratulating journalists on the upcoming Russian Press Day.

"Freedom of press in our country and the possibility to express one's point of view have long stopped being a declaration and turned into an everyday reality," said the statement, carried by Itar-Tass.