Measures against independent TV channel and against fair elections
Less than 4 months before the October parliamentary elections in Ukraine, the tax police have descended heavily on TVi which has over the last two years become one of the last television channels willing to broadcast views critical of the government. A criminal investigation has been initiated against the Director of the company Mykola Knyazhytsky over what the tax authorities allege was tax evasion. Since the amount in question is 3 million UAH (305 thousand EUR), the charges could carry a prison sentence, though most observers on Thursday were more inclined to see this as an attempt to silence a channel known for its critical stance. It would be difficult to call TVi fully balanced, but it has consistently allowed different voices to be heard, and has given coverage to protests, high-profile scandals, government corruption deals and socio-political issues. These are all either presented in manipulative fashion or assiduously avoided on the increasingly sycophantic national television channels.
With regard to the criminal investigation just initiated, Mykola Knyazhytsky is categorical that it has no basis. He says that the case involves alleged non-payment of VAT, and that it has been initiated after the channel won the relevant court case. When they started out in 2008, they needed to buy all the equipment and paid VAT on it, even though it was exempt from the tax. The authorities did not wish to return the VAT, so the channel deducted this amount when settling their tax accounts. According to Knyazhytsky, all tax checks up till now have confirmed that this was legitimate. For that reason he is adamant that the latest tax police visitation is aimed at silencing critical voices and is an assault on freedom of speech.
There would certainly seem to be grounds for concern since this is not by any means the first visit by the tax authorities, and the pretexts for the others have been different. For example, on 14 April Mykola Knyazhytsky publicly stated that TVi was facing pressure from the tax authorities and called on the Ministry of the Interior and the Tax Administration to deal with the situation. He reported that they were facing another tax inspection just months after the previous one. The Tax Administration then claimed that the new check was at the request of a police investigator.
The close interest of the tax authorities follows previous conflict. TVi was one of the two – most independent - channels whose frequencies were radically cut in 2010. The alarm bells which began ringing and prompted comments from EU structures, international media watchdogs and others were only compounded by the role played by the Security Service, then headed by Valery Khoroshkovsky. The latter also happened to own the media holding which most benefited from the reallocation of broadcasting frequencies.
The latest action against TVi closely follows worrying moves involving threats of criminal prosecution against the Chief Editor and other journalists from the website Levy Bereg (www.lb.ua ). The situation is not entirely clear, and the Prosecutor’s statements have been contradictory, however it is difficult to feel it coincidental since Levy Bereg is also known for its critical, hard-hitting articles.
The timing in both cases is of major concern given the close proximity of elections. On 9 February this year the Verkhovna Rada finally passed a resolution on measures to stop checks by various authorities and State institutions. At that time the Tax Administration stated that they would not be scheduling checks from the second quarter of 2012, i.e. from 1 April.
This all makes the assertion on Thursday by a spokesperson from the Tax Administration that the check on TVi was carried out before the moratorium on media checks was announced on 25 June baffling.
One civic activist from Kryvy Rih had in the last week written to TVi asking how he could protest against the sudden disappearance of the channel from the normal, albeit restricted, slots where it was broadcast. It is difficult to know how many other people have been experiencing such problems of late.
It is, unfortunately, much easier to predict how many people will lose access to independent news coverage and free exchange of views if a clear message is not given to the authorities regarding the latest measures against TVi. They are entirely inappropriate just months before the parliamentary elections. It is vital that the international community makes it clear that fair and democratic elections must include full respect for freedom of speech and access to all information, including that critical of the government.