MOSCOW — Russia’s sole countrywide independent television channel was yanked off the air Sunday, rekindling a debate on how President Vladimir Putin views press freedoms ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.
The Press Ministry said it closed TVS, where many reporters took refuge after two other channels closed in succession, because it was mired in a financial and management crisis.
Journalists admitted the station had difficulties but said the move threatened objective reporting of politics.
The channel’s broadcasts ended abruptly at midnight during a commercial, replaced first by a test pattern and then a notice saying: “Farewell. We have been taken off the air.” Within minutes, a sports channel began broadcasts.
The ministry said TVS failed to meet the demands of quality broadcasting and had “sunk into a financial, staffing and management crisis.”
TVS journalists, some unpaid for up to three months, blamed a combination of financial woes and political intrigue.
“Our opponents did not have the good sense to wait for our natural passing,” satirist Viktor Shenderovich told Ekho Moskvy radio. “The channel would have ceased to exist in two or three days because without money, you clearly can do nothing.”
Liberals allege that pressure from Putin’s administration has restricted press freedom since he took office in 2001.
Boris Nadezhdin of the Union of Right-Wing Forces Party told the Interfax news agency the shutdown was “the logical conclusion of the Kremlin’s policy towards independent media. TVS was the only channel able to sharply criticize the authorities.”
Parties backing Putin said the move was undertaken legally.
TVS was cut off from Moscow’s main cable network last week in a dispute over debts, but employees were taken by surprise at the overnight decision. NTV television showed TVS journalists turning up for work to find the station had been closed down.
Many TVS journalists had initially worked at NTV, which set itself apart from two state-controlled channels with critical coverage of Russia’s military campaign in Chechnya. In 2001, NTV passed from control of press magnate Vladimir Gusinsky into the hands of gas monopoly Gazprom after a takeover battle.
The editorial team regrouped at another channel, TV6, whose license was withdrawn last year, and then formed TVS.