Triple Blow for Kharkiv Television
Cartoon from the Internet publication Glavnoye: the caption within the screen reads "Correct opinion"
In an article for Tema, Yury Lukanov investigates the removal from air of three channels: - ATN, Fora and A/TVK – over a short space of time.
He explains that the co-founder of all channels is the Investor Fund which is owned by Arsen Avakov, former Head of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration and opponent to the current Nayor of Kharkiv, Gennady Kernes in the October local elections. The opposition asserts that the “raid” on the TV channels was commissioned by Mayor Kernes. His investigation, Yury Lukanov writes, found no direct proof of Kernes’ involvement, but did find a lot of indirect evidence.
The television channels which no longer exist were not afraid of criticizing the local authorities. Mayor Kernes had on a number of occasions expressed dissatisfaction with what he called ATN’s lack of objectivity. As reported, Mr Kernes now denies any involvement and says that this is all a business matter. Arsen Avakov, on the other hand, says that it is revenge because he does not let Mayor Kernes and the Head of the Kharkiv Regional Administration, Mykailo Dobkin, squander public funding without any control. As reported, the Prosecutor’s Office says it sees no grounds for interfering.
On 22 July this year the General Director of the popular channel ATN, Oleh Yukht received a letter from the provider IT-Service terminating their contract to provide the channel with a signal. No explanation was given, there was only a reminder that ATN needed to pay money owing. Yukht replied that ATN asks the provider not to break the agreement, and to explain their reasons. He received no response, but the ATN News disappeared from the screen. Yukht asserts that the arrears were merely those which regularly arise during the normal working process, and there was no problem with paying the money due. ATN was forced to turn on its on radio relay station. A resident of the neighbouring building, Anastasia Kobets complained that her health had deteriorated as a result of the radio relay. A few days after this she became the Head of the Kharkiv regional organization “Young Regions” which is a youth branch of the ruling Party of the Regions which Kernes represents.
It further transpired that ATN did not have a sanitary hygiene passport without which you can’t use a radio relay station. On 28 July ATN applied for this passport from the Sanitary Hygiene Service in Kharkiv. On 1 August doctors from his Service arrived at ATN to check whether they had such a passport, and on 2 August the Chief Sanitary Service Doctor Irina Zubkova issued a decision temporarily banning use of the radio relay station due to the lack of a sanitary passport. ATN approached the Health Ministry and a commission arrived in Kharkiv from Kyiv to ascertain whether the station’s work was detrimental to the health of people in adjoining buildings. On 1 September the channel received a certificate from the Chief Doctor of the Central Sanitary Hygiene Service, Lybov Nekrasova, confirming that the relevant building could house a radio relay station. However the Kharkiv Sanitary Hygiene Service has not removed its ban. The Acting Chief Doctor of this Service, M. Chehrinets on 12 September wrote that they see no grounds for suspending this decision at the present time.
On 4 July ATN turned to the provider Datagroup asking them for a signal. They agreed this and the channel began testing the signal. Yet as soon as they reached the point of beginning to broadcast, the provider suddenly lost the technical possibility to provide the signal. Before that the Acting Director of the TV tower, Oleksandr Derhylyov demanded a pile of documents which are not required by law. A similar situation emerged with a second provider – Velton Telecom, which also “lost” the technical possibility after having prepared the appropriate documentation. The money ATN had paid in advance was returned as payments made by mistake.
On 14 September the broadcasting was similarly terminated of channels A/TVK and Fora, with the provider Ukrainian Digital Communications [UDC] simply stopping providing the signal. Yelena Baranina, General Director of A/TVK says that at first they thought that UDC was having technical problems, but a few hours later it became clear that the situation did not depend on UDC ordinary staff. On 15 September UDC Director Maxim Tsyan gave a press conference at which he said that he had not instructed his staff to turn off the signal, but did not explain how the channel had been cut off. He said however that, having looked at the agreement between UDC and A/TVK, he had found it to be “unqualified”, having been made on 1 February 2009. Yelena Baranina, General Director of A/TVK says that they had normally worked for three years with such a contract without any problems, and that they immediately wrote offering to draw up a new contract. This, she says, has still not been done.
She explains that, knowing what had happened to ATN, they were anticipating problems and had organized a backup – via the same Datagroup provider. Yet with them also, the technical possibility suddenly disappeared just as they were supposed to go on air.
An employee of the provider stated, on condition of anonymity, that the refusal to work with the channels came due to pressure from a municipal enterprise set up recently. It controls the cable wells and providers’ agreements to set up Internet. They threatened that if the provider helped the channels, it would face problems with making these agreements.
Mayor Kernes asserted that the municipal enterprise can in no way put pressure and only watches to ensure that the providers when putting in Internet cables don’t damage the buildings. Kernes himself is a co-owner of Channel 7 which shared the broadcasting signal with ATN. When asked whether there was not a conflict of interests, Kernes said that he had a law education, that he knew the law and had an interest in observing it. He asserts that the city authorities only create the field for players to use. If the players have conflict, the city authorities cannot interfere.
The situation with ATN was considered at a meeting last week of the Inter-Departmental Group on Observance of Legislation on Freedom of Speech and Protection of Journalists’ Rights. Deputy to the Prosecutor General, Viktor Zanfirov stated that the television channel had problems with the Sanitary Hygiene Service in Kharkiv. “Contentious issues should be resolved in accordance with current legislation by the economic parties in the courts”.
Oksana Romanyuk from Reports Without Borders in Ukraine says that formally speaking he is right and there are no documents proving pressure from Gennady Kernes. She says however that there are too many facts demonstrating coordinated pressure. None of the providers will shoot themselves in the foot by admitting that they are under pressure. The very fact, she adds, that three channels which were not afraid to criticize the authorities, have been removed from air cannot be by chance. There may be some kind of infringements, as with the sanitary hygiene passport, but this is unfortunately the case with all Ukrainian firms. She says she had hoped that under public pressure the Prosecutor would have carried out an objective investigation, stopped this arbitrary lawlessness directed against freedom of speech.
From the article at Tema (slightly abridged to avoid repetition. The article was written as part of a project being run by the Kharkiv Human Rights Group on supporting journalist investigations, with the financial support of the International Renaissance Foundation.