Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 205

Ukraine’s independent quality television STB, set up in 1997 with the participation of Russia’s LUKoil, is sinking under pressure from the current presidential administration. On October 13, STB independent TV founder Volodymyr Sivkovych quit his post as managing board chairman and sold his share in the enterprise, explaining that he was forced to leave the station, which–if he did not–might otherwise be closed by the authorities on the basis of alleged tax evasion. On October 22, a group of leading journalists also quit STB, protesting what they described as direct political censorship by Kuchma’s staff advisor, Serhy Kutsy. The Ukrainian constitution bans such censorship. This protest was prompted by Kutsy on October 20 when he forbade the channel from broadcasting an interview with STB former managing director, Mykola Knyazhytsky, who wanted to defend STB from pro-government media attacks. Kutsy, who now supervises STB production, had reportedly been made a member of the STB managing board under pressure from the government (Zerkalo nedelii, Den, October 23).

Kuchma’s administration has so far ignored international criticism of its treatment of dissenting media–and of STB in particular. This year, Kuchma was rated sixth on the list of enemies of the press by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists for harassment of the media with the help of taxation and libel laws–at which Kuchma took offense (see the Monitor, May 6). In September, the committee sent a letter to Kuchma, asking him to stop the harassment of STB. In October, it was the Council of Europe observers’ turn to ask the president not to harass independent media–which was disputed by the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry in a statement. More recently, warnings came from the U.S. State Department. Speaking about Ukraine in New York on October 14, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright mentioned problems faced by STB. A week later, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott openly stated in an interview with Zerkalo nedeli, a Kiev-based weekly, that STB is being pressured by the government to influence its coverage of the presidential campaign. So far, apparently, there has been no reaction to this remonstrance from Talbott.

STB has been virtually the only Ukrainian television station trying to give an unbiased picture of political events in the country. Initially, both Sivkovych, a former KGB officer turned businessman, and STB backed Kuchma. The channel’s first managing director, Knyazhytsky, was appointed by Kuchma in September 1998 to chair the State Television Company (STC). Knyazhytsky promised quality reforms at STC. The troubles started for STB when Kuchma fired Knyazhytsky in November 1998, disagreeing with his management style (see the Monitor, November 19, 1998). Simultaneously, Sivkovych resigned as Kuchma’s advisor. STB then became pronouncedly defiant, regularly hosting opposition politicians, both national democratic and leftist-oriented, who are usually refused airtime in the atmosphere of self-censorship now pervading the Ukrainian electronic media. STB was punished by an avalanche of technical and taxation inspections. In February and March, STB journalists complained about telephone threats, one of Knyazhytsky’s assistants was shot dead, and unknown assailants broke into the apartment of an STB manager (see the Monitor, March 4). In June, the state agency for frequencies annulled STB’s license to broadcast via satellite. In July, following a suicide of a leading analyst for STB, Maryana Chorna, Kievskie vedomosti, a pro-government daily, ran what it claimed to be Chorna’s posthumous letters, in which she reportedly accused Knyazhytsky and Sivkovych of foul political play. It is still unclear how the newspaper got access to classified investigation materials immediately after Chorna’s death. This September, the taxation authorities initiated a tax evasion case against STB. This was openly supported by Kuchma, who accused STB of hiding advertisement profits–which STB repeatedly denied. The STB accounts were frozen. Facing the prospect of imminent closure, STB significantly cut coverage of political events and stopped airing its weekly analytical program.

Zerkalo Nedeli, an independent weekly critical of Kuchma and the government, suggested its version of muzzling STB, according to which Sivkovych could be pushed out by LUKoil, which holds a considerable share in STB. The Russian company, which is expanding its operations in Ukraine, is not interested in spoiling relations with the local government, so the independent-minded journalists were shown their place. In any case, the events around STB show that this television station is losing its fight for freedom of expression against the government (STB, June 4, August 20, September 13; UNIAN, June 11, September 3, 4, 13, October 22, Kievskie vedomosti, July 1-2, October 23; Kyiv Post, October 7; Ukrainian radio, October 15; Zerkalo nedeli, Den, October 23).