The information blockade around opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko has broken. Channel 5, which is controlled by Yushchenko’s aide Petro Poroshenko, is no longer the only television channel to give air time to the opposition and offer more or less unbiased coverage of Ukrainian politics.
Several months ahead of the October 31 first round of the presidential election, ICTV, STB, and Novy Kanal — all linked to President Leonid Kuchma’s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk — had started to broadcast fairly objective news programs. Then between October 31 and the November 21 runoff, Era TV, which is owned by Andriy Derkach, whose godfather is none other than Kuchma, openly sided with Yushchenko. Last week the staff of the state-owned UT-1 and the privately owned 1 + 1 television rebelled against the temnyky, the instructions on TV coverage issued by Kuchma’s administration. Unlike Channel 5, Era, ICTV, STB, and Novy, whose signals are received in most major cities but not across the entire country, UT-1 and 1 + 1 are truly national channels. The ruling elite’s monopoly on information is now over.
One Plus One was the first to rebel. On November 22, its news team refused to go on the air, as a protest against its management’s bias in favor of the government. Chief news editor Vyacheslav Pikhovshek, a Kuchma loyalist, had to anchor news programs solo for several days. The November 25 saw an unexpected turn. In the morning, several websites reported that Pikhovshek had been sacked. Then 1 + 1’s flagship evening news program was preceded by a short statement from Oleksandr Rodnyansky, the channel’s general producer and co-owner. “We admit our responsibility for the biased reports that we so far have been broadcasting under pressure and on orders from certain political parties,” he said. “From today,” he continued, “we guarantee that any news program by our channel will be impartial, in full accordance with principles of professional journalism.” One Plus One has kept its word so far, offering its viewers meticulously impartial coverage of the ongoing political crisis, giving air time to both Yushchenko and his arch-rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. And Pikhovshek’s weekly analytical program, a relic of Soviet-style hate journalism, did not air in its usual slot on Sunday (November 28). Instead, Pikhovshek appeared on screen an hour later and pledged to support his colleagues and make fair reports.
UT-1 followed suit on November 24, when its news team went on strike. “Over the past month we have been negotiating with the National TV Company to make news coverage less biased and impartial,” they revealed in a statement for the media. “Unfortunately, we have not reached the desired result.” This goal, however, was reached shortly thereafter. UT-1 chief manager Oleksandr Savenko grudgingly backed down the following day, telling the journalists that they could shape their news programs in accordance with their understanding of impartiality. UT-1’s coverage of the political crisis has visibly shifted toward objectivity.
But the fight for freedom of expression is apparently not over at state television outlets. On November 26, a source at UT-1 complained to UNIAN that Savenko had allegedly issued secret instructions to dismiss one-by-one the journalists who had demanded the editorial policy change. The source also said UT-1 was not allowed to film the pro-Yushchenko rally in central Kyiv, but was instead ordered to place its cameras at Kyiv’s main railway station, where Yanukovych was addressing his supporters, who had arrived from eastern Ukraine.
These tidal changes at nation-wide television channels have been a major victory for Yushchenko. Yet their significance should not be overestimated. UT-1 has been quite unpopular for many years, due to the low quality of its programs, and 1 + 1, whose news programs come out in Ukrainian only, is watched mostly in Ukraine’s western and central regions, where Yushchenko is already popular. The predominantly Russian-speaking east and south, however, prefer news in Russian by Inter-TV and, recently, by the Donetsk-based Ukraina channel. Both remain on Yanukovych’s side. On November 28, Ukraina was the only nation-wide channel broadcasting, live from eastern Luhansk Region, a meeting of the governors of Ukraine’s southeastern regions, who voiced their unconditional support for Yanukovych.
But the winds of change are now starting to blow at the third major national channel, Inter-TV, which has begun to give air time to representatives from the opposition. Yet the pro-government bias remains in its programs, though it is not as strong as it was only one week ago. On November 25, one of Inter’s key journalists, the long-time Moscow correspondent Oleksandr Lukyanenko, submitted his resignation, saying that he had been tricked into hosting a TV marathon exclusively devoted to Yanukovych supporters.
(UNIAN, November 22, 26; Telekritika, November 24; Ukrayinska pravda, UT-1, November 25; 1 + 1, November 25, 28).