FREE MEDIA AT RISK IN UKRAINE?
Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 27
Studio 1+1, a popular Ukrainian television company and program, may suffer the same fate as Russia’s TV-6. On February 1, Kyiv’s economic court ruled to expel 1+1 from the air. On February 4, 1+1 filed an appeal. Big business interests are at stake. Nonetheless, the timing of the attack–two months before the parliamentary elections–would certainly seem to indicate that the matter is in fact political.
The matter began when AITI TV, a small company sharing airtime with 1+1 on UT-2 (the second of Ukraine’s three national television channels), filed a suit against Ukraine’s National Council for TV and Radio Broadcasting, charging that 1+1 had increased its air time illegally. AITI’s license to broadcast three hours per day had been canceled last year. The economic court upheld the AITI claim. Its ruling: 1+1 was forbidden to broadcast and the Council was ordered to revoke 1+1’s license and conduct a tender to fill 1+1’s slot on the channel. The Council slammed the verdict as unprofessional. “Without much thought,” Viktor Leshyk of the Council said, “a single judge attempted to close a popular television program, in which US$45 million has been invested.”
At a press conference on February 5, 1+1 director Oleksandr Rodnyansky accused Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko and Vadym Rabinovich, a media tycoon who supports and defends AITI, for masterminding the attack against his program. At the same time, 1+1 journalists pledged to continue broadcasting and called on President Leonid Kuchma to defend them. Omelchenko and Rabinovich denied Rodnyansky’s accusations. Rabinovich quite mysteriously described the conflict as “a great Moscow intrigue” masterminded by “jobless spin doctors.” On February 6, he sued Rodnyansky for slander. Omelchenko threatened to do the same.
While it is unclear why Rodnyansky fingered Omelchenko, his antagonism towards Rabinovich is well known. Studio 1+1 has been in the thick of a conflict involving Ukrainian oligarchs, international business interests and Ukrainian secret services for quite some time. In 1996, 1+1 was created by U.S. media magnate Ronald Lauder. The same year, Rabinovich helped it enter the Ukrainian media market. Later on, precisely when is unclear, Rabinovich broke with it (or was kicked out, as he himself says), but apparently maintained his interests in UT-2. Ukraine’s top security officials were drawn into the subsequent conflict between Rabinovich and 1+1 shareholders. In the summer of 1999, then National Security and Defense Council Secretary Volodymyr Horbulin insisted on forbidding Rabinovich, who holds an Israeli passport, entry to Ukraine. But Andry Derkach, a business partner of Rabinovich and son of then Security Service (SBU) chief Leonid Derkach, defended Rabinovich. Several months later, Horbulin lost his post. In January 2001, the SBU banned the German investor of 1+1, Boris Fuchsmann, from entering Ukraine. Rodnyansky then accused the SBU of persecuting Ukraine’s free media. On February 10, 2001, Kuchma fired SBU chief Leonid Derkach without explanation (see the Monitor, February 12, 2001).
It is unclear whose side Kuchma will take this time. The balance of power at the top has shifted against 1+1. Andry Derkach and his father are prominent members of the pro-Kuchma electoral bloc For United Ukraine. The United Social Democratic Party and Horbulin’s Democratic Union–two parties with which 1+1 has long sympathized–have lost much of their clout as Kuchma has visibly distanced himself from their oligarchic leaderships.
A shut down of Studio 1+1 would be a serious defeat for Ukraine’s free media and nascent democracy. Regardless of the political sympathies of its top managers, 1+1’s news and political programs have won nationwide acclaim for being both professional and, for the most part, objective. It has also been a shining example of successful foreign investment (Interfax-Ukraine, February 4; 1+1 TV, STB TV, February 5; Inter TV, MIGnews, February 6; New Channel TV, February 7).
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