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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

TV6 Sidelined as the Games Begin

MTTV6 general director Yevgeny Kiselyov telling reporters after the 75-minute meeting with employees Tuesday that he will fight to the end to keep his editorial team on the air.
NTV Plus sports programming began airing on TV6's frequency at 7 a.m. Tuesday, and the Press Ministry said it would stay there until a tender for the channel's license is held March 27.

The Press Ministry's abrupt shutdown of TV6 at midnight Monday, just hours after a court ordered it to do so, marks the first time a national television station has been switched off in Russia in a process not fully prescribed by law.

TV6 general director Yevgeny Kiselyov emerged from a somber 75-minute meeting with his staff to declare that he was ready to fight to the end.

"We intend to do everything that we can to stay on air," Kiselyov told reporters. "If we cannot do it on television, then we will transmit our programs on Ekho Moskvy radio or on the Internet."

Ekho Moskvy began airing TV6-produced news Tuesday.

Kiselyov said OOO TV6, a company set up by TV6 journalists last week, would take part in the tender for the channel's frequency but expressed doubt that it would win.

"The frequency will most likely go to someone else," Kiselyov said.

Press Minister Mikhail Lesin said after Tuesday morning consultations with the tender commission that it had decided to grant TV6's license for a $1 million fee March 27. The commission will pick the winner based on its concept for the station. NTV Plus will be ineligible to participate, Lesin said.

Lesin conceded that the law does not permit the issuance of temporary licenses, such as the one NTV Plus now has, but said it is "an established practice to grant temporary permits" when there is a lapse between licenses. Such was the case with ORT and TV Center in 2000, he said.

Furthermore, he said, the Press Ministry may consider giving TV6 journalists temporary permission to use the frequency if they "get organized" and "solve their internal problems."

He refused to elaborate. He hinted, though, that TV6 journalists should go ahead and register OOO TV6, figure out their allegiances and obtain the equipment and money needed to broadcast.

"Mr. Kiselyov is between a rock and hard place," Lesin said. "He has to decide whose side he is on -- the [TV6] collective's, [Boris] Berezovsky's or [Vladimir] Gusinsky's."

Kiselyov and many of the 1,200 employees at TV6 deserted Gusinsky's NTV after it was taken over by Gazprom-Media in April.

The RBC news agency said Tuesday that OOO TV6 may face problems getting registered. But the Vedomosti newspaper reported that another company called ZAO TV6 and owned by Kiselyov and TV6 executive director Pavel Korchagin had already been registered on Dec. 24, a couple weeks before OOO TV6 was first considered.

TV6 owner Berezovsky said he will do his best to help the journalists who have been "essentially forbidden to practice their profession."

Saying the shutdown was part of a campaign by President Vladimir Putin to harness the independent media, Berezovsky said the Kremlin started the assault two years ago when ORT was "nationalized," continued with NTV and "became completely clear" with TV6.

Berezovsky sold his 49 percent stake in ORT to Roman Abramovich, a reputed Kremlin insider, in 2000.

"Everybody got the clear signal today: You have no right to say openly what you think. Otherwise, you will be deprived of your piece of bread -- literally," Berezovsky, who is living in self-imposed exile in London, said on Ekho Moskvy.

Some observers view the TV6 and NTV crackdowns as part of a Kremlin campaign to push once-influential oligarchs out of the media. But the process has raised broad concerns about the diversity of opinion on the government-dominated television market.

Lesin, who had said Monday that it would take two to three days to pull the plug on TV6, said he regretted that a compromise had not been found with TV6 journalists that could have kept them on the air.

Last week, TV6 and the Press Ministry appeared to have reached a deal allowing the journalists to broadcast until the license tender took place. But on Monday, TV6 backed out of the deal and court bailiffs handed papers to the ministry obligating it to suspend TV6 broadcasts.

Lesin said the only winner in the TV6 spat was Berezovsky.

"What else has he got to do living in London? He always has to prove he is a dissident," Lesin said.

He said TV6 minority shareholder LUKoil-Garant, the pension fund belonging to state-connected oil giant LUKoil, was behind the closure, not Putin. He said Putin had told him to do his best to keep the TV6 journalists on the air.

He said LUKoil holds a grudge against Berezovsky over the way he snapped up shares in TV6 in 1999.

"Today's situation cannot be considered by taking account only what happened yesterday or a week ago," Lesin said. "Every issue has a history."

In the absence of TV6, the frequency is being filled with sports programming from NTV Plus satellite television, a subsidiary of NTV parent company Gazprom-Media.

With the Olympics coming up next month, the choice of sports is likely to be welcomed by many viewers. The choice of the politically neutral programming also does not give any public channel a business advantage.

Gazprom-Media spokesman Oleg Sapozhnikov said the TV6 airtime was filled with a mix of two NTV Plus channels Tuesday: Sport and Football.

"Out of the two channels, we can form one that has rights for general access showings," he said.

More programming rights will be bought, Sapozhnikov said, and a separate master control room will be set up for the channel. Advertising will also appear on the channel soon.

"We are not a charity," Sapozhnikov said. "Taking into account that the Olympics are coming, we hope to make some money by selling airtime, and our expenditures will be more than justified."

TV6's 160 affiliates across the country will have the option of picking up the sports programming or any other network, Lesin said. The technologies to do so were not yet in place Tuesday, leaving the affiliates scrambling to fill some of their airtime.

Many of those regions were broadcasting local programming at midnight Monday and did not experience the blackout seen in Moscow when the Press Ministry switched off electricity to the station's broadcasting facilities, cutting off a host in mid-sentence.

Kiselyov said Tuesday that NTV Plus is using the TV6 frequency illegally.

Although TV6 managers promised to fight on, some of the channel's star journalists said they were not optimistic.

"We were saying goodbye to each other," satirist Viktor Shenderovich said after emerging from the staff meeting.

Svetlana Sorokina, anchor of the "Glas Naroda" talk show, said she would look for a job outside journalism "My career is over. That is absolutely clear," she was quoted by The Associated Press as saying.

Staff Writer Robin Munro contributed to this report.