Russia’s last politically independent television station, TV2 in Tomsk, Siberia, fell silent on the stroke of midnight Wednesday night as the country rang in the New Year with a televised address by President Vladimir Putin after a state transmission service forced it off air.
As the stirring lyrics of the Russian national anthem welled up on TV2 following Putin’s speech, with an onscreen image of Russian’s tricolor flying above the Kremlin, the station’s signal was cut.
Regional authorities in Tomsk, a city 2,235 miles and three time zones east of Moscow, failed to intervene to prevent the closure of a station that employs 300 people and has broadcast to an audience of 600,000 since May 1991.
The station ran images of empty studios and newsrooms on its website after the plug was pulled in what the state transmission service RTRS (Russian Radio and Television Broadcasting Network) says is a contractual dispute, but station bosses claim is politically motivated.
The irony of the station’s closure immediately following the presidential address in which Putin spoke with pride of the “return home” of Ukraine’s Crimean territory, forcibly annexed by Russian troops last March and the need for Russians to face up to growing economic problems, was not lost on top news anchor Yulia Muchnik.
In comments on her Facebook page Dec. 30th, she wrote that the closure would “go down in the world history of relations of independent media and the authorities.”
Urging viewers to watch until the end, she added: “And then the [midnight] chimes will strike. Our special chimes. Well, we are small players and big, important state orders are pulling the plug. Don’t miss it and be with us until the end of this difficult 2014.”
Viewers who stayed with the station until the end, as Tomsk met the New Year three hours ahead of Moscow time, watched Putin’s pre-recorded speech before the signal was abruptly cut a few seconds after the last Kremlin chime struck and the national anthem began.
In his address, the Russian president, seen with the Kremlin behind him, told Russians: “This year will be exactly what we make of it — there is no other way.”
For TV2 Tomsk that means — like Moscow’s Dozhd TV forced off cable schedules last January —switching to cable and Internet services to get its broadcasts out after it failed to win a reprieve from closure by RTRS, which claimed its license was no longer valid.
Founded in November 1990 and on air since May 1991, the multi-award-winning station earned a reputation for fearless, balanced reporting. A year ago, it was the only TV station in Russia that broadcast Putin’s Games, a German-made documentary that exposed corruption surrounding the Sochi Winter Olympics. “The station had always run stories that the Tomsk authorities did not like,” Simone Baumann, the producer of Putin’s Games, told The Hollywood Reporter. “When they ran the film it was a very, very brave decision for a Russian television channel. No one else dared.”