MOSCOW -- The government shut down the country's last large independent television station Sunday, forcing off the air a team of journalists at the center of a debate over Russian media freedom.
TVS, created from the ashes of two other television stations that came into conflict with state-connected companies, was yanked off the air early Sunday. Some employees learned the station had been closed while listening to the radio on their way to work.
Coming ahead of December's parliamentary elections and next year's presidential vote, the demise of TVS gives the government overwhelming influence over what goes out on the nation's airwaves -- again raising questions about a free press under President Vladimir Putin.
The Ministry of Press cited "the financial, personnel and management crisis" at TVS as the reason for "this not simple decision which became impossible to postpone," according to a statement obtained by Ekho Moskvy radio and read on-air.
The closure was not unexpected -- debt-ridden TVS had been dropped earlier this month by Moscow's main cable company over unpaid bills, depriving it of its largest viewer market.
"The channel might have closed for the most trivial, financial reason, but by taking this step, they have added a political dimension to their decision," TVS news director, Yevgeny Kiselyov was quoted as telling the Interfax news agency.
Television's strong political influence in Russia is no secret.
Independent stations rallied behind former President Boris Yeltsin to help him win re-election over his communist rival in 1996. But the same stations also angered the Kremlin by bringing piercing war footage of the first Chechen campaign into Russian homes nightly, helping turn public opinion.
Kiselyov and some of his journalistic team previously worked for NTV, formerly the biggest independent station. But when NTV was taken over by the government-connected natural gas monopoly in 2001 in what critics said was an attempt to curb the station's critical coverage, Kiselyov and others fled to TV6, which like NTV was privately run. NTV remains nominally private.
That station was shut down last year in a dispute with a shareholder, a government-connected pension fund. TV6 journalists then formed TVS, backed by Media-Sotsium, a group of business executives loyal to the Kremlin.
TVS news didn't produce the kind of hard-hitting reporting that had distinguished NTV or TV6. But Kiselyov still went after Putin in his weekly Sunday news show, often with obvious disdain.
Liberal lawmaker Boris Nadezhdin of the Union of Right Forces party called it "the last TV channel that ventured to criticize Russian leaders."
Ekho Moskvy's editor in chief, Alexei Venediktov, said the closing of TVS gives the government a virtual monopoly on broadcasting.
"It's like when all candidates are excluded from the election campaign, except for only one," he told Interfax.
TVS never had the independent credentials that its predecessors enjoyed, particularly with Former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov on its board.
It was plagued by financial difficulties, partly due to infighting among its powerful oligarch investors. The channel's staff had not been paid in three months and it didn't have access to the kind of popular programming that attracts advertisers, according to Russian media reports.
"First and foremost, the shareholders are guilty for not taking the necessary decisions at various stages of the channel's existence ... leading to the channel's economic collapse," Kiselyov said Ekho Moskvy radio.