Moscow has claimed that Kyiv’s recent decision to banish several Russian TV channels from Ukrainian cable TV networks was a violation of bilateral accords and of the rights of Russian speakers. Kyiv, on the other hand, says that the Russian channels in question violated Ukrainian laws. Ukrainian cable TV operators, backed by pro-Russian politicians, may ignore the ban.
On September 23 the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Council (NRTR), Ukraine’s media regulating body, ordered cable networks to stop re-broadcasting the state-controlled Russian channels ORT and RTR and the private Ren TV beginning November 1. The NRTR explained that RTR and Ren TV had unfairly competed with Ukrainian TV channels by broadcasting the same programs simultaneously, while ORT broadcast “untrue information,” such as a report in March 2006 alleging that secret CIA prisons existed in Ukraine and a report in April 2008 saying that Hitler dolls were on sale in Kyiv shops (www.telekritika.ua, October 3).
“We demand adherence to the requirements of the laws on copyrights, advertisement, consumer rights protection, broadcasting, and several other laws,” said NRTR Chairman Vitaly Shevchenko. He recalled that Ukraine’s state television (UT1) reported “heavy losses” when Ukrainian cable TV networks re-broadcast RTR reports from Eurovision, the European popular music contest, for two years simultaneously with UT1, resulting in UT1 collecting less money from advertisers (Ukrainska Pravda, October 6). Many Russian-speaking Ukrainians preferred RTR to UT1 because of the language.
The Party of Regions of Ukraine (PRU), the main opposition party, accused the NRTR of discriminating against Russian channels. It noted that the NRTR did not ban the Russian-language programs of the RTVi and EuroNews channels, which are based outside Russia. “The powers-that-be want to cut off Ukrainian society from the Russian information space,” the PRU said in a statement, “thereby violating freedom of speech in Ukraine and the right of citizens to receive full and true information.” The PRU, which is apparently going to play the Russian language card in the forthcoming parliamentary election campaign, also accused the NRTR of violating the right of Russian speakers to receive information in their native language (Ukrainska Pravda, October 7).
Moscow’s reaction has been predictably stormy. The Russian Foreign Ministry warned that the ban on the Russian channels would badly affect bilateral relations, as “it is in violation of the relevant provisions of the Russian-Ukrainian agreements on cooperation between the two countries’ mass media.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said that “it will be impossible for millions of Russians and Ukrainians residing in Ukraine to receive information in their native language” (UNIAN, October 9). Russian Communications Minister Igor Schegolev urged Kyiv to “stop discriminating against Russian channels.” He said that the ban violated the October 2000 agreement between the Russian and Ukrainian governments on cooperating in TV and radio broadcasting (Interfax, October 24).
The NRTR said that it would invite RTR, ORT, and Ren TV back to Ukraine if the three channels committed themselves to adhering to Ukrainian and European broadcasting laws. The NRTR denied violating the rights of Russian speakers, saying that several TV companies based in Ukraine were licensed to broadcast Russian-language programs (Ukrainska Pravda, October 10). The NRTR recalled that it had warned Russian TV channels three years ago about the irregularities, but they did not react. NRTR deputy chairman Ihor Kurus hailed the Russian Foreign Ministry’s proposal to send a group of experts to Kyiv for talks on the issue (Interfax-Ukraine, October 15).
Writing in an influential Ukrainian weekly, Kurus brushed away the accusations of language chauvinism. He said that 65 of the 83 foreign channels approved by the NRTR for re-broadcasting in the cable networks were broadcasting in the Russian language. He also noted that apart from RTR, ORT, and Ren TV, the NRTR forbade re-broadcasting 45 Russian channels, as well as several Chinese, Belarusian, and British channels. According to Kurus, they were banned in line with the Ukrainian law on TV and radio broadcasts for a variety of reasons, mostly for violating copyrights and advertisement rules (Zerkalo Nedeli, October 25).
The NRTR will probably be disobeyed, especially in eastern and southern Ukraine, where the Russian language and the PRU dominate. Two members of the Ukrainian Cable TV Union, interviewed by a Ukrainian business daily, said the NRTR’s decision was not legally flawless so it would be appealed in the courts and ignored (Ekonomicheskie Izvestia, October 6). The Zaporizhya Region council defied the NRTR by calling on the local cable networks to continue re-broadcasting the channels banned by the NRTR. “Nearly 85 percent of the Zaporizhya population is Russian-speaking,” the head of the local PRU organization, Andry Ivanov, explained (Interfax-Ukraine, October 9). The parliament of Crimea said that it would appeal against the NRTR to the Constitutional Court in Kyiv (UNIAN, October 23).