KIEV, Ukraine -- Channel 5 and TVi remain the strongholds of journalistic integrity amid growing accusations of censorship by government and media owners.
For Ukrainians who want independent and fair TV news coverage, experts say the choices have dwindled to two options: Channel 5 and TVi.
Those are the only remaining channels that Natalia Ligacheva, chief editor of Kyiv-based Telekritika media watchdog, considers as unbiased.
But even their futures as honest purveyors of information are uncertain.
TVi’s owner, exiled Russian businessman Konstantin Kagalovsky, claims his channel is being unfairly stripped of frequencies by the State Committee on Television and Radio.
As for Channel 5, speculation is spreading that its owner, millionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko, might sell out soon. Poroshenko could not be reached for comment.
One by one, they have fallen victim to the political interests of their owners, state censorship or old-fashioned journalistic self-censorship out of fear of running afoul of President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration.
“Certainly, the information airwaves have narrowed for the opposition. Censorship is re-emerging, and the opposition is not getting covered as much,” said Oleh Rybachuk, a civic activist who headed Viktor Yushchenko's presidential administration in 2005-2006.
“There are some similarities to what Vladimir Putin did in Russia when he started his seizure of power by first muzzling criticism in the media,” Rybachuk said.
Yanukovych’s administration denies ordering censorship of news coverage, refuting accusations from a growing number of television journalists.
But if the charges of press-muzzling are true, Ukraine’s citizens may be transported back to the decade-long informational black hole of ex-President Leonid Kuchma's era.
In those pre-2004 Orange Revolution days, before Yushchenko came to power, citizens were bombarded daily with Soviet-style propaganda from leading television news programs, mostly controlled by billionaire oligarchs.
Those tycoons, who got wealthy under the insider privatizations orchestrated by the Kuchma administration, backed Yanukovych for president in 2004. And they lost big.
But now their guy is president while many of the wealthiest – Rinat Akhmetov, Viktor Pinchuk and Igor Kolomoisky among them – still have control of most news media outlets.
“Now none of the major TV channels’ owners are in opposition to authorities,” Telekritika’s Ligacheva said. “Therefore, if Poroshenko sells Channel 5, and we hear he has been receiving offers, then the opposition will have no channel of its own.”
Journalists at the nation’s second most watched television channel, 1+1, threatened on May 6 to go on strike if censorship does not stop. A day later, colleagues at the STB television channel joined them in solidarity, issuing a statement of their own with demands for censorship to stop.
Early warning signs came months ago, when Ukraine’s State Security Service -- a spy agency that traces its roots to the Soviet KGB and is better known by its SBU acronym -- led an investigation aimed at cancelling frequencies recently issued to TVi.
The channel’s journalists and management accused SBU chief Valery Khoroshkovsky of foul play, an allegation that he denies. Khororshkovsky’s involvement would pose a clear conflict of interest, since he co-owns the nation’s largest TV group, Inter.
TVi’s journalists claim that their channel is under pressure as one of the few remaining outlets that prevent pro-Yanukovych forces from monopolizing all television media in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Igor Kolomoisky, the billionaire who owns 1+1 channel, denied that his channel has censored reports or been pressured by Yanukovych’s administration. Instead, he pointed the blame at opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister.
Kolomoisky told the Financial Times newspaper that individuals close to Tymoshenko had recently offered to continue paying for positive coverage – an offer he claims to have rejected.
Viktor Pinchuk, the billionaire son-in-law to ex-president Leonid Kuchma who owns STB, ICTV and Novy Kanal, has thus far not commented on censorship allegations.
But media watchdogs say coverage on his channels is also slanted in favor of Yanukovych’s administration.
“The situation with freedom of speech at STB is not as bad as on other channels,” said Viktoriya Siumar, head of the International Media Institute in Ukraine, a non-profit organization.
“According to our monitoring, there is much more political bias at the ICTV and Inter channels. Therefore, we expect more TV reporters raising censorship concerns on their channels. And if more journalists voice and resist any censorship attempts, it will be harder for the authorities to curb media freedom.”
Speaking to journalists on May 12, Jose Manuel Pinto Texeria, the representative of the European Union in Ukraine, criticized Ukrainian authorities for not breaking up the monopolistic grip of oligarchs over television media.
“We are receiving reports about restrictions of press freedom in Ukraine, but unfortunately, we don’t have factual evidence. For me, it has been very unfortunate to see that Ukraine has in the last years not upheld its obligation to set up a public television channel … which could provide equal access,” he said.
Hanna Herman, deputy head of the president’s administration, said a new law establishing a public TV channel is in the works now, but no details are available yet. However, she hopes for its speedy approval by parliament. “With God’s help, we’ll have it approved by September,” she said on May 11.
Journalists at 1+1 and STB, however, say that – since Yanukovych’s Feb. 25 inauguration – station management started restricting their coverage of numerous hot-button topics.
Those included the controversial role of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during World War II, when the nationalists were accused of Nazi collaborations. Other topics suddenly taboo were the allegedly pro-Russian positions of Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk and the Holodomor famine, which claimed the lives of millions of Ukrainians in 1932-1933.
Journalists also said channel management prohibited them from doing stories about high officials’ luxurious mansions and lifestyles, and of reporting on how Yanukovych’s Party of Regions supporters were being paid for their presence at recent demonstrations.
To back up their claims, the 1+1 reporters cited specific instances of censorship: a story on the approval of the new cabinet was stripped of all criticism, as was a story on the recent agreement to keep the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol until at least 2042.
Less clear is where the alleged censorship orders are coming from.
Some say they are coming from the president’s team.
Others say the regulatory State Committee on Television and Radio is the source.
Two weeks before the May 9 Victory Day celebration, a journalist with Lviv’s state-run television station received a so-called roznaryadka, a document that spelled out how journalists should cover the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II.
“It has already begun,” said Sofia Sadina, whose political talk show airs live on Tuesday evenings. “They are already saying what can and cannot run. These are not the ‘temnyky’ of Kuchma’s days, but they are very large requests,” she said, referring to the formal written instructions from the ex-president’s administration detailing how news should be covered.
Yuriy Plaksiuk, head of the State Committee on Television and Radio, denied the charges. “There was a presidential decree and a cabinet’s decision on covering the official events connected to the celebration of the Victory Day, but they did not give any recommendation on how to cover, neither were there any forbidden topics. And the committee, generally, does not issue instructions for state TV companies on how to cover the news,” Plaksiuk said.
Still others think that the channel’s millionaire and billionaire owners are simply seeking to remain in the administration’s good graces by curtailing criticism and hard-hitting investigations that exposes corruption and helps Ukrainians hold their public officials accountable.
Much is at stake, since most Ukrainians get their information from television news. Thus far, newspapers and investigative online outlets seem immune from pressure. Zerkalo Nedeli and Ukrayinska Pravda are two examples of institutions known for hard-hitting investigative journalism.
“We now have to figure out how this pressure on the media works,” Ligacheva said. “Some of the messages apparently are coming from the presidential administration. In other cases, we see self-censorship by the TV channel owners.”
Some journalists, such as Lviv’s Sadina, say they are simply ignoring instructions to slant their coverage. “Journalists are saying no,” she said. ”Journalists are now fighting back.”
But Ihor Pochinok, editor and co-owner of the country’s largest Ukrainian-language newspaper, Lviv-based Expres, said he expects more conflicts ahead.
“Relations with this government will only get worse,” Pochinok said. Once Yanukovych’s appointments are in place in the regions, “then close to the fall, we’ll see serious conflicts. There will be attempts to stop certain press freedoms.”
Journalists and Lviv university students held a two-hour warning strike on May 11 to protest clampdowns on the media. They also wanted to keep pressure on the president to remove the much disliked education minister, Dmytro Tabachnyk, from his post.
“If you listen to the radio, for instance, there is no analysis of the events leading to Victory Day, there is no critical assessment,” said Olha Salo, one of the strike organizers. “Right now, we are not protesting. We are giving a warning of what can come