Attempts by President Leonid Kuchma’s administration to silence dissenting opinions on television ran into resistance at a decisive moment in the presidential election campaign. Journalists from most of Ukraine’s nation-wide TV channels have vocally protested efforts to muzzle free expression just a few of days before the October 31 presidential poll. What is more, the main opposition contender for presidency, Viktor Yushchenko, managed to break the information blockade, appearing on mainstream televisions on the eve of the voting.
The journalists of Channel 5, the only nation-wide TV outlet openly backing Yushchenko, were the first to launch a counter-offensive to defend freedom of speech. It must be admitted, though, that Channel 5 probably had no other choice. In August, the authorities switched Channel 5 off in the country’s densely populated Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk regions, which are strongholds of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Yushchenko’s main rival in the election. Throughout September and October, several towns across Ukraine switched it off one by one, citing “technical reasons,” if any explanation was even given.
In early October, rumors started to spread saying that the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Council, the state media regulating body, was planning to strip Channel 5 of its license to broadcast in Kyiv, as some other well-connected channel reportedly had laid claim to the same frequency. Eventually, a court in Kyiv froze Channel 5’s account in Raiffeisenbank Ukraine, but under a different pretext. A lawsuit by parliamentarian Volodymyr Sivkovych, a former KGB officer and a former media manager himself, was used against the journalists. Sivkovych had demanded that the founder of Channel 5, opposition parliamentarian Petro Poroshenko, apologize for libeling him. On October 13 Channel 5 had the misfortune to broadcast Poroshenko’s accusations, namely that Sivkovych had lied when he reported on Yushchenko’s mysterious illness to parliament on October 12. (Sivkovych, who chaired the ad hoc parliamentary commission looking into Yushchenko’s alleged poisoning in September, told parliament that his commission had not found proof that Yushchenko had been deliberately poisoned.)
On October 20, Channel 5 held a live news conference denouncing what it described as the government’s attempt “to shut down the only independent TV channel” in Ukraine. “They are trying to destroy our channel, the only media outlet that does not take orders from the government,” news editor Roman Skrypin said. Channel 5 personnel warned that they would launch a hunger strike. On October 24, more than 100 journalists representing several TV channels, including, quite unexpectedly, the notoriously pro-government 1 + 1, ICTV, and Inter TV, rallied to express their support for Channel 5’s struggle. They even took brooms onto Kyiv’s main street, saying that they would rather sweep streets than lie on television.
Channel 5 staff went on a hunger strike on October 25, demanding: (1) unfreezing the channel’s bank account; (2) confirming that Channel 5 broadcasts on Channel 48 in Kyiv legally; (3) resuming Channel 5’s broadcasts in regions; and (4) a public apology from Sivkovych. On October 27, the bank account was unfrozen, but the journalists continued their hunger strike until November 2, when the court of appeals in Kyiv overruled the original verdict on freezing the account and Sivkovych apologized.
Channel 5 set an example to other journalists. On October 28, journalists from several TV channels, including the fiercely pro-government Inter TV, signed a statement protesting censorship and pledging to adhere to standards of impartial coverage. “Contrary to professional journalism principles, the government and certain owners and managers of TV channels are trying to ignore important events and are twisting facts,” the statement said. The journalists demanded that the television channels employing them should represent different points of view in news coverage — something that is notoriously absent from news programs of Inter TV and 1 + 1, which are linked to Kuchma’s chief aide Viktor Medvedchuk, and UT1, which is state-owned.
Though still a far cry from Western standards of impartiality, the coverage of the election noticeably changed on several channels in the final days before the actual vote. On October 29, Era TV, which broadcasts at night and early in the morning using UT1’s frequencies, dared to air a lengthy interview with Yushchenko. This was quite unexpected from a TV channel controlled by Andry Derkach, a wealthy businessman from Dnipropetrovsk, whose godfather happens to be none other than Kuchma. And on polling day, October 31, Inter was among the first channels to show Yushchenko casting his ballot. It is also interesting that several leading journalists of pro-Yanukovych channels appeared on TV screens on October 30 and October 31 dressed in orange, which is the color of Yushchenko’s campaign. Some of them had been among those who signed the October 28 anti-censorship statement.
The loyalty of nationwide TV channels — with the only exception of Channel 5 — has been one of Yanukovych’s main advantages over Yushchenko. If the mood of dissent continues to spread among the television community in Kyiv, Yanukovych may lose this edge in the run-up to the November 21 run-off.
(Channel 5, October 20, 25, 26, November 2; ICTV, October 24; Telekritika web site, October 28; Era, October 29; Inter, October 31.)