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Independent Russian television channel may be forced to stop broadcasting

(IPI/IFEX) - MOSCOW, Oct 12, 2012 – Independent Russian television channel Sovershenno Sekretno (“Top Secret”) TV said it is facing closure after a state-owned broadcaster indicated that it would terminate a contract to carry the channel's signal next March, some 20 months early.

The 24-hour channel – which was launched six years ago and reaches 15 million people in Russia, the CIS, the Baltic States and Israel by cable and satellite – is known for its independent reporting, openness, high professional standards and high-quality on-air hosts.

A nominee for this year's Eutelsat TV Award recognizing quality satellite television channels in the “Culture and Documentaries” category, Sovershenno Sekretno TV specializes in documentaries, talk shows and interviews on burning issues related to political, cultural and economic life in present day Russia and throughout the country's history. It is part of the independent Russian media company of the same name founded by prominent investigative journalist Artyom Borovik, who died in 2000 in an air crash under mysterious and as-yet-unexplained circumstances. The company is now run by Borovik's widow, Veronika Borovik-Khilchevskaya.

Sovershenno Sekretno TV is broadcast in Russia via cable networks owned by state-owned telecommunication provider Rostelecom, which is close to the Kremlin and which has been mentioned in the Russian media more than once in connection with a series of corruption scandals.

The present contract between the two is scheduled to end at the close of 2014, but Rostelecom in August sent a letter to the channel's management indicating that the contract would be terminated as of March 2013. Borovik-Khilchevskaya at a press conference on Tuesday in Moscow pointed to what she termed a “strange reluctance” by Rostelecom management to negotiate a new contract.

According to Eteri Leviyeva, Sovershenno Sekretno TV's general producer, high-ranking Rostelecom representatives told her privately that “big shots” in the administration of President Vladimir Putin were behind the decision. She recounted past instances in which she received phone calls from individuals at the Attorney General's office or close to the Kremlin who expressed anger at the channel's programming.

Leviyeva said that “big shots” were unhappy about coverage of conflict between Russia and Georgia, and about protests that preceded and followed elections in Russia. In 2011, Svetlana Bakhmina, a former legal executive with the now-defunct Russian oil company Yukos who was sent to prison for alleged tax fraud and embezzlement at the company, was a guest on the channel's show “The Right to Freedom” in her first television appearance following her 2009 release from prison.

Leonid Velekhov, one of the channel's most popular hosts, whose shows have reportedly come under “special attention” by the channel's high-level critics, pointed out that Sovershenno Sekretno TV's mission was to reach out to its audience rather than represent the political opposition. Noting that guests of his show “Political Cuisine” included some of the brightest Russian intellectuals, historians, writers and politicians of different views, he said the channel's closure would not only deprive open-minded and respected personalities of the possibility to express their views and ideas before a large audience, but also deny the channel's 15 million viewers the chance to hear and learn about those guests' ideas.

Top representatives of Rostelecom were reluctant to comment on the situation, but when pressed by local journalists they reportedly attributed the decision to “household difficulties” of their corporation “restructuring its economy”, saying the decision was not personal but “just business”.

Galina Sidorova, chair of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI), and a former editor-in-chief of the monthly Sovershenno Sekretno magazine, commented: “The potential closure of this independent, highly-professional and popular Russian TV channel, which was recently nominated for the Eutelsat TV 2012 award, reflects the desire of the Putin regime to eliminate from society not only public discussion, but even thinking. The Kremlin seems to be introducing a new fashion in dealing with the free media – to rule indirectly using 'economic reasons' and 'toy' business companies. The 'new rule' seems to perfectly suit the present administration – which stays, as it were, uninvolved in silencing independent voices – and its corrupted “toy businesses”, which do this unpleasant job and thus buy the right to steal in exchange for their loyalty. It definitely doesn't serve the interests of society”.

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