UTV-1 viewers could feel good to be Ukrainian on 28 August. The news began with effusive thanks to President Yanukovych and Ukraine from the Head of UEFA for a wonderful soccer tournament. Yanukovych was more than upbeat, telling the viewers of this State-owned channel that Euro 2012 was “a step for the development of our country, towards our country joining those modern countries who are today the leaders in both the economy and sport”.
The future was all rosy. The next piece of news was that the government would be stimulating the shipbuilding industry then we saw Prime Minister Azarov hand over the keys for new flats provided by state programmes. And we learned that the “Constitutional Court has limited MPs’ immunity”. Not in the slightest true, of course – they have only permitted MPs to pass such a law, but that, for fairly obvious reasons, the TV presenter did not go into. The next item, about the European Court of Human Rights hearing into Yulia Tymoshenko’s application was not inaccurate as such. Just woefully inadequate for anybody looking for real information about a criminal prosecution with real and much less positive implications for Ukraine’s immediate future.
The fact that politically motivated prosecutions have all but killed Ukraine’s chances for an EU – Ukraine Association Agreement is just one of the items of news one would be likely to learn on TVi. The channel, only available through cable networks, is virtually the single channel regularly interviewing opposition members and presenting views critical of the government, as well as exposing corruption and various scandals.
Is, or was for many thousands of viewers in Ukraine who have had their access to TVi cut. In August more than 60 cable providers removed TVi from their packages, and last week the Volya cable provider moved TVi to a much more expensive package, thus depriving a large number of Kyiv residents of access to the channel.
This comes less than two months after a search by the Tax Administration of the TVi premises and a criminal case initiated against its Director, Mykola Knyazhytsky. There was considerable outcry over this from both within Ukraine, and from the initial community. Some observers may have felt cheered when the Tax Administration appeared to back down. In fact, the scant grounds for optimism were clear even then as the TVi signal began disappearing in various parts of Eastern Ukraine. The process has now become wide-scale.
The official line is obvious – nothing to do with politics, these are commercial operators and it’s their business. They are indeed commercial outfits, and know very well how easy it would be to remove their licence if they don’t prove obliging. It is only really unclear whether TVi is right and the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Council is directly behind all these cable providers suddenly deciding to renege on contracts, or whether other levers have been used.
It would require true optimism to doubt the real reason behind the full-frontal assault on this at least relatively independent channel just before the parliamentary elections The thousand people who within 24 hours signed the appeal launched by Telekritika (English here) certainly have no illusions.
On UTV-1’s 29 August evening news the brief and carefully constructed news item about the High Court’s rejection of Tymoshenko’s cassation appeal came after an item informing the viewers that “Viktor Yushchenko believes that the parliamentary elections will be reasonably fair, without widespread infringements”.
Not the first time the former President has demonstrated flawed understanding of democratic processes. Some of the very many western reactions to the High Court’s ruling ignored by pro-government TV channels suggested that the prosecutions of Tymoshenko and Lutsenko were aimed at keeping them out of the elections.
Measures which remove access to TVi’s hard-hitting coverage of events in the country are no less obviously aimed at limiting voters’ ability to make an informed judgement in the October parliamentary elections.
They are so overt, that immediate response is vital from all European and international structures, including those monitoring the elections. With such flagrant disregard for media freedom and the right to information, it would be well for this response to be unequivocal and spell out likely ramifications now.