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Russia24 June 2003

Government closes last independent TV station while parliament restricts election coverage

The amendments to the electoral code that were adopted by the Duma on 18 June were approved by the Council of the Federation on 25 June. They must be signed by President Putin before they can take effect.

Reporters Without Borders today voiced deep concern about the government’s permanent closure of the main independent TV news station, TVS, and the Duma’s approval on 18 June of amendments to the electoral code that will severely restrict election campaign coverage.

The organisation feared these measures would seriously threaten the diversity and freedom of news coverage, especially in the legislative elections in December 2003 and the presidential elections in March 2004.

It therefore called on the Russian Federation’s Council to reject the electoral law amendments when it considers them on 25 June, and it called on the information ministry to explain the closure of a national TV station that was readier than any other to criticise the authorities.

The information ministry cited a "management and financial crisis" when it stopped TVS’s broadcasts on 22 June and replaced them with a sports channel. The ministry said "a decision was necessary to protect viewers’ interests and to take account of the legal aspects."

Created on 1 June 2002 in the wake of the controversial liquidation of the independent television channel TV6, TVS was run by a consortium of businessmen who had pledged to ensure that it remained independent. Its staff consisted mainly of former TV6 and NTV employees who lost their jobs in a government-orchestrated takeover by the energy giant Gazprom. Since the start of June, the station had been progressively disconnected from the Moscow-region cable network as a result of its shareholders’ refusal to pay a debt of 8 million dollars in a dispute over a share buyout.

A businessman close to the Kremlin, Oleg Deripaska, bought 90 per cent of the shares on 6 June. The station’s journalists, some of who have not been paid for three months, accused shareholders of letting TVS die by not paying its salaries and bills.

The amendments passed by the Duma on 18 June on third reading were proposed by the president of the central electoral commission, Alexandre Veshnyakov, as a way to stop politicians commissioning articles that praise certain candidates and denigrate others. The amendments allow the closure of news media that violate the electoral code twice and they ban "electoral propaganda" during the campaign.

However, the term "electoral propaganda" is not clearly defined and could be construed as referring to any article mentioning a candidate. This would drastically curtail press coverage during election campaigns and could result in many news media being closed.

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