Last month I posted that Ukrainians who want independent and fair TV news coverage only had Channel 5 (Kanal 5) and TVi left. Channel 5 played a crucial role during the Orange revolution and TVi was set up by a Russian media tycoon who was the first victim of Vladimir Putinâ€™s squeeze on media in Russia. Recently a court has stripped them of their new broadcast frequencies:
The board claimed that the court hearing was being influenced by Ukrainian Security Service head Valery Khoroshkovsky. Khoroshkovky owns the rival media holding Inter Media Group, which has asked for a new tender for frequencies. Khoroshkovsky strongly denied exerting pressure on Channel 5 and demanded proof of the allegations made by its editorial board.
"What kind of direct proof one can have, other than the fact that Khoroshkovsky is one of the owners of Inter Media Group? He is the chief of the security service, a member of the Higher Council of Justice. His wife is the manager of Inter Media Group. Here you have double standards," Roman Skypin, a journalist who heads TVi’s information service, said in an interview with RFE/RL.
As a result TVi will remain a satellite channel with little coverage in Ukraine, and Channel 5, whose licence allows it to be mainly about entertainment, may not be able to retain its news programmes.
Itâ€™s not surprising that independent media would start to disappear when the Yanukovych government decided to sack the current head of the SBU (secret service) and replace him with a rival television network and media empire owner. It is clearly a conflict of interest and journalists are vying for an independent parliamentary commission to investigate as well as Khoroshkovskyâ€™s dismissal.
The development follows weeks of growing complaints by journalists about the resurgence of censorship and heightens fears that a Kremlin-styled crackdown on media freedoms could be in the works five months into the presidency of the Moscow-friendly Viktor Yanukovich.
Oleh Rybachuk, a former presidential administration chief turned civic activist, said â€œcensorship is re-emerging, and the opposition is not getting so much coverage. There are similarities to what [Vladimir] Putin did when he came to power. We are seeing Putin-style attempts to monopolise power.â€
In 2012 Ukraine makes the transition to digital broadcast television, in which all the old analog channels will discontinue and TV stations must re-apply for these new digital frequencies. Telekritika, a media watchdog news website and magazine commented in her Kyiv Post interview â€˜Power wants monopolyâ€™:
TVi had prepared the frequency for itself. It is common practice here that after that there has to be a tender held. By agreement with the National Council and all market players, the initiator has historically received the most frequencies. But they had to share with others, too.
But Inter Group claimed most of these frequencies â€“ and thatâ€™s unfair. [Having understood that the claim would not be satisfied], they withdrew their application, and then filed a lawsuit. Itâ€™s not very clear why.
The desire of the new power to control and monopolize television is visible through many of its actions and through the quality of the news we have.
Khoroshkovsky is a member of the High Council of Justice. In any democratic country, undoubtedly, this kind of a court hearing, with major procedural violations, simply could not happen.
Another point is that something needs to be changed at the National TV and Radio Council. These sorts of commercial disputes lead to the loss of news channels. This shows inadequate work of the National Council, which has to make sure that we have information channels, public TV and that the needs for Ukrainian-language media are satisfied. But it has never done it in a civilized way.
And finally some background on television and politics in Ukraine:
During the Presidency of President Kuchma Ukrainian television was more or less controlled by Kuchma while the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (united) controlled Inter TV. After the Orange Revolution Ukrainian television became more free. In February 2009 the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting claimed that "political pressure on mass media increased in recent times through amending laws and other normative acts to strengthen influence on mass media and regulatory bodies in this sphere".
As of January 2009 Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko refused to appear in Inter TV-programmes "until journalists, management and owners of the TV channel stop destroying the freedom of speech and until they remember the essence of their profession – honesty, objectiveness, and unbiased stand".
Members of Ukraineâ€™s media have banded together to form the â€˜Stop Censorship!â€™ movement to protest these actions of flagrant censorship.