Ukraine's Assault on a Free Press
Sunday 23 January 2011
In Ukraine, where media diversity is often defined by which powerful oligarch controls which TV station, one network, TVi -- known for its independent investigative style -- is under intense legal pressure, with its owner not part of Ukraine's power circles.
TVi faces a court hearing on Tuesday over a legal claim that the station's frequencies were not legally authorized. But critics, including many from abroad, have accused the Kiev government of using the case as a way to bludgeon a troublesome media voice into silence.
Mykola Kniazhytsky, General Director of TVi, told me that the court case represents an example of state control over a free press and a sign that Ukraine is retreating from the more pluralistic political system that arose with its independence after the Soviet Union disintegrated two decades ago.
"The [rival] companies that filed the claim in court against [the assignment of frequencies] by the National Council of Television and Radio, belong to Valery Khoroshkovsky, the head of the SBU, the Ukrainian Secret Service," Kniazhytsky said. Khoroshkovsky, in turn, works for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovitch.
In other words, Kniazhytsky sees the Ukrainian government manipulating the legal process to force TVi and its investigative journalism off the air.
Though many features of this struggle are specific to Ukraine, the desire of powerful government officials to restrict what their populations hear and see is surely not unique to Ukraine or other former Soviet states. It is a trend that seems to be rising.
In the United States, for instance, the Obama administration is considering criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and alleged leaker, Pvt. Bradley Manning, for their roles in releasing thousands of classified U.S. government documents.
Democracy in the Balance
Still, the political situation in Ukraine is considered especially troubling by supporters of democracy because it suggests that this key nation, which has balanced between Russia and the European Union, could be tipping back toward autocratic tendencies.
"There are many people in the West who understand that there is a serious real danger that Ukraine will turn into a country like Belarus," said Kniazhytsky in an interview with me.
"Then there will be a large totalitarian state with nuclear power stations and uranium mines controlling transit of energy to Western Europe. If this country becomes a dictatorship, there will be many strategic dangers for the West."
Reporters Without Borders, The International Press Institute, Freedom House and Transparency International have all issued terse condemnations of the degradation of freedom of the press in Ukraine, with specific references to the government's conflicts of interest in the TVi case.
The European Union and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have issued statements agreeing with TVi's claims, highlighting this apparent attempt to selectively revoke broadcasting frequencies.
Elmar Brok, a member of the European Parliament from Germany, voiced a similar concern, that Ukrainian Federal Police [SBU] Director Khoroshkovsky is meddling with the country's courts.
Brok said Khoroshkovsky "doesn't seem to understand that threatening the independence of the judiciary is one of biggest mistakes you can make when you are trying to build a new state. He doesn't seem to understand what are the proper limits of his mandate."
Last October, Dunja Mijatovic, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's representative on press freedoms, urged Ukraine "to refrain from any attempt to influence or censor media content."
In November, in response to Ukraine's application for membership in the EU, the European Parliament issued a resolution that expressed concerns about recent events that could undermine media pluralism, and deplored the selective revocation of TVi's licenses.
Frequencies in Doubt
In the court case, TVi has had to defend the assignment of frequencies to the station by the National Council of Television and Radio. Competing stations claim that the broadcasting council lacked the necessary quorum when granting the frequencies.
TVi has countered that there was the necessary quorum and that the courts overstepped their bounds by canceling all of their frequencies citing no grounds whatsoever.
In the interview, TVi's General Director Kniazhytsky traced what he regarded as the true origins of the case to the head of the federal police agency, Khoroshkovsky, who is the principal owner of a competing company, Intermedia, but insists it is not under his influence and control.
Kniazhytsky noted that beyond the ownership conflict-of-interest, Khoroshkovsky's wife is the general manager of the Intermedia TV stations, whose affiliates initiated the court case against TVi.
Kniazhytsky also pointed out that until recently Khoroshkovsky was a member of the Supreme Council of Justice, a governmental body that nominates and dismisses judges.
"The judges who considered our case were dependent on him," Kniazhytsky said.
TVi has offended Ukraine's power structure, too, by specializing in coverage of official corruption in a country that Transparency International recently downgraded to one of the most corrupt nations in Europe.
TVi's scrutiny of the lucrative gas industry threatens to reduce the huge profits made by those at the highest levels of government, Kniazhytsky said.
"Ukraine is a transit country for Russian gas to Europe," Kniazhytsky noted. "It's also a country of 46 million that is a market for Russian gas.
"This is something that is always a source of corruption, because prices are negotiated by Russian and Ukrainian presidents – and there is no transparency. There is also a lot of natural gas produced in Ukraine, but no one knows how much."
Profiteering in Natural Gas
In 2009, a dispute between Russia and Ukraine led to a halt in winter fuel that left hundreds of thousands in Europe without heat. However, Kniazhytsky explained how profits were extracted from the crisis – and how gas sales are at the heart of much political wrangling in Ukraine.
"Until recently, all gas business was under RosUkrEnergo, a company registered in Switzerland, owned by a Ukrainian businessman, Dimitri Firtash," Kniazhytsky said, calling the firm an unnecessary middleman.
"This company was buying gas in Russia and selling it to Ukraine," he said. "There is no reason for a middleman, no reason why [Russia's] Gasprom could not sell gas directly to NaftaGas, the Ukrainian state-owned company."
A recent U.S. Embassy cable from Kiev, which was released by Wikileaks, referred to the Swiss-based RosUkrEnergo as a "shady intermediary."
The cable added the firm's owner, Firtash, had told the U.S. Ambassador that he controls 60 percent of the Intermedia group, the same company working to remove TVi's frequencies in court.
TVi's Kniazhytsky saw this cable as confirmation of his suspicion that the station's investigation of the gas industry – and that industry's influence in Ukranian media – helped explain TVi's legal troubles.
"Khoroshkovsky says that [Intermedia] belongs to him -- and that Firtash only has an option to buy a part of the Intermedia group -- but it is clear that Mr. Khoroshkovsky and Mr. Firtash have something to do with this company."
Firtash is also involved in Ukrainian politics. He has been quoted as claiming to be the primary funder of the campaign to elect the current president, Viktor Yanukovitch.
Less Connected Owner
By contrast, TVi's owner Konstantin Kagalovsky had been a deputy manager of Yukos, the Russian oil company that was run by Mikhail Khordokovsky, a Russian oligarch who fell out of favor with the Kremlin and was imprisoned over fraud charges.
TVi's owner Kagalovsky also served as an economic minister in the post-Soviet government in Russia, but then emigrated to the United Kingdom where he became a citizen.
TVi's General Director Kniazhytsky said Kagalovsky "doesn't have other business or support any political party in Ukraine. He considers himself independent. The government in Ukraine cannot influence him in any way. …
"The other channels are owned by Ukrainian oligarchs who have many other businesses in Ukraine. People in power can guarantee their loyalty by either applying pressure or giving them preferences."
Whatever forces are at work to silence TVi, Kniazhytsky said he is determined to keep its investigative work at full throttle.
"They can't call me from the office of the president and tell me what can or cannot be shown, as they do with all the other TV channels," he said. "The principle of our work is editorial independence, an unusual phenomenon in Ukraine."
Kniazhytsky claimed corruption is pervasive in Ukraine, extending into the court system.
"The courts are not only corrupt, but also dependent on the government," he said. "This is called the telephone law: Bureaucrats and people in the administration can pick up the phone and tell a judge what kind of decision to make. That's why it is a political decision. "
Since the legal case began, Kniazhytsky suspected he and some of the TVi journalists were being watched, though the government denied involvement.
Yet, after more suspicious activity outside the station, Kniazhytsky said inquiries were made and "a member of the Ukrainian parliament came to us and said that he received a letter from an employee of the SBU [the federal police], saying that they indeed started surveillance of me as directed by Valery Khoroshkovsky," the SBU chief and an Intermedia owner.
"This was a direct confirmation that it was the SBU that followed me," Kniazhytsky said. "What is dangerous is that if this was done legally, they would have admitted, yes, we have tailed you. But since they said that none of this happened, then I don't know what was the aim, the goal of this surveillance."
Kniazhytsky said there were indications that the surveillance was related to possible physical attacks or other forms of intimidation.
To some observers, the pressure on TVi seems disproportionate to its size. Tvi is small compared to its Ukrainian competition, with Intermedia ranking as the largest broadcaster in the country.
"TVi is not a big channel, but if a topic is forbidden to show on other TV channels and mentioned on ours, stories get picked up by the Internet and elsewhere around the world," Kniazhytsky said.
"We also broadcast the court hearings about our case live. And we make short video clips about all who are involved in the issue, not just judges but other bureaucrats who restrict freedom of speech in Ukraine."
Kniazhytsky, who has degrees in journalism and law, added, "The decision made by the court, that our frequencies should be considered expired absolutely contradicts Ukrainian law."
The TVi case comes to a head with an appellate court hearing on Tuesday as the country nears a boiling point.
Over the last few months, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and a number of the officials in her administration were charged with a variety of crimes, including misappropriation of funds. Some are imprisoned, while others have received political asylum outside the country.
EU and US officials have criticized the prosecutions out of concern that the moves may be driven by politics, not evidence.
"Although as a rule the U.S. government does not comment on the specifics of individual cases, we have raised with the Ukrainian government our concern that while corruption should be pursued, prosecution should not be selective or politically motivated," the State Department said. Kniazhytsky said his day in court on Tuesday will not lessen his work load.
"From a practical point of view, I know that no matter what happens on January 25th, we are at the beginning of the road, and we will have to continue to defend our right to freedom of speech until Ukraine becomes truly independent and truly democratic," he said.
David Marks is a veteran investigative reporter and documentary producer. His credits include "Nazi Gold," a BBC special on the role of Switzerland in WWII, and BBC biographies of Jimi Hendrix, Sun Myung Moon, Frank Sinatra and Sam Giancana. He has covered stories in Ukraine on productions about the political aftermath of Chernobyl and the Orange Revolution.
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