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Russia's 6th channel goes on air

MOSCOW, June 1 (UPI) -- After more than two months of preparations, legal confusion and squabbling with their predecessors, the journalists of Russia's Shestoi Telekanal broadcasting company returned triumphantly to the air on Saturday.

While Televizionny Spektr, or TVS, may reincarnate the independent and now defunct TV6 for viewers, the battle for free speech in the media isn't over. In fact, the next fight is expected to come from close to home: the former owner of TV6, tycoon Boris Berezovsky, says he will continue his fight to regain the frequency for himself.

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TVS and its team of mostly former TV6 journalists reappeared on Russian televisions at 8 a.m. Moscow time. Programming began with a children's film, followed by a Turkish drama and a news bulletin at 11 a.m.

The TVS staff is led by popular anchor and political analyst Yevgeny Kiselyov, who came to TV6 after quitting another independent channel, NTV, in protest of what he considered a tainted shake-up of management two years ago.

Then, in late January, TV6 was ordered shut down in a controversial court order that critics decried as government bullying.

Nor has the courtroom wrangling ended since. Saturday's launch of the new channel was preceded by two controversial court rulings issued this week that nearly canceled TVS' broadcasting plans.

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On Wednesday, a court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki ruled that the Moscow Independent Broadcasting Corporation (better known by its Russian acronym MNVK) should resume broadcasting within three months.

On Thursday, Moscow's Meschansky court issued practically the same ruling, causing further confusion as the countdown heralding the launch of the new station began by the hour.

Russian Press Minister Mikhail Lesin reacted immediately, assuring reporters that Shestoi Telekanal would go on the air as scheduled despite court decisions that actually gave back broadcasting rights to MNVK.

MNVK is a parent company of Berezovsky's TV6. The tycoon has been living abroad in recent years after parting ways with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In January, a Moscow court issued orders to shut down the network and liquidate MNVK in the aftermath of a lengthy legal battle, waged by Berezovsky and LUKOil-Garant pension fund, a Kremlin-connected minority shareholder.

According to LUKOil-Garant's charges, MNVK's management had run huge debts that exceeded by far the company's revenues.

The fund, a subsidiary of Russia's largest oil company, LUKOil, insisted that the network be shut down and MNVK liquidated in order to protect its stake in the company.

At the time, Russia's political analysts tagged the legal process as a farce whose architects were concerned with only one goal -- to strip Berezovsky of his influence, exerted via TV-6, known for its critical remarks and opposition to the Kremlin.

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Commentators even said the effort to shut down TV6 was orchestrated by the Kremlin, with LUKOil-Garant serving only as a tool to reach the objective pursued by authorities.

The Kremlin distanced itself from the conflicts, labeling them as a pure business affair between the involved parties. Press Minister Lesin and other government officials promised that the TV6 staff would be given an opportunity to return to television screens in bidding for the vacant frequency.

In the weeks following the TV6 shutdown, TV6 host Kiselyov looked for business partners who would offer financial support to a new network and found them at Media-Sotsium, a non-commercial partnership chaired by former prime minister and political heavyweight Yevgeny Primakov.

By teaming up with Primakov, a one-time Soviet Politburo member, Kiselyov's staff leapt from underdog to favorite as analysts predicted that Primakov's stature and close ties with the Kremlin would carry the day.

On March 27, the alliance of Kiselyov's Shestoi Telekanal and Media-Sotsium indeed won the bid, but had to postpone broadcasting because of technical details and other arrangements that needed to be worked out before going on the air.

At the same time, MNVK, whose broadcasting license had been suspended in January, was going through a liquidation process, an action that in Russia can take as long as six months.

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Meanwhile, the vacant frequency was handed over to NTV-Plus sports channel, which filled the void on a temporary basis until Saturday.

On April 25, Shestoi Telekanal's general director Alexander Levin told Moscow's Izvestia newspaper that MNVK had agreed to rent its equipment and studios to Media-Sotsium. He also said the new network would participate in the bidding to buy the equipment after MNVK's liquidation was completed.

But the deal was dealt a hard blow in mid-May when a resilient Berezovsky, speaking to Moscow's independent Ekho Moskvy radio, ruled out the rental of the equipment and studios because the decision authorizing Media-Sotsium to broadcast on MNVK's frequency was "illegal."

According to Russian law, a network that is going through liquidation procedures still retains the right to broadcast during that period, charged Berezovsky -- and MNVK's license had not been revoked, but only suspended, he added.

Last week, Berezovsky's remarks were reiterated by Igor Shabdurasulov, a member of MNVK's board of directors.

"The corporation doesn't agree with the results of the March 27 bidding and is ready to appeal in courtroom the (Press Ministry's) decision to issue a license to Media-Sotsium to broadcast on the sixth channel," Shabdurasulov told reporters.

After Saturday's launch of Shestoi Telekanal's programming, the dispute is bound for more courtroom battles.

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Press freedom in Russia has caused concerns in recent years as the last two independently owned networks, NTV and TV6, changed owners.

In April 2000, the state-backed Gazprom gas giant ousted NTV managers through a boardroom coup after the network's founder Vladimir Gusinsky failed to repay multi-million-dollar debts to the company.

Gazprom converted debts into shares and installed its own managers, prompting Kiselyov, then NTV's editor-in-chief and general director, to leave.

Kiselyov and his independent-minded journalists and editors who quit at NTV soon took up jobs with Berezovsky's TV6 in a move described as the beginning of the network's end.

Within less then a year, these predictions proved true as court bailiffs produced a ruling that ordered the network's shutdown and started seizing property.

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