Forget calendars, preparations for the 2015 Presidential elections are already underway. The latest in a series of media ownership changes can probably best be viewed as forward planning. There’s time enough for all the customary denials of any change in course or any interference in editorial policy to seem vindicated. There’ll also be ample time to ensure “proper” coverage during the election campaign. A government draft bill on ensuring transparency of media ownership, which would prohibit non-resident offshore ownership, has possibly been thrown in now to keep carping critics at bay.
Not a chance – the stakes for journalists, and all who want democracy in Ukraine are too high, and the assault on irritating pluralism and freedom of expression painfully obvious.
The last few months have seen a large number of media resources being bought by people considered close to President Yanukovych and his sons,
The latest upheaval came last week with the announcement on 17 June that the Ukrainian Media Holding [UMH’] had sold the Focus project (including the journal of this name) to the Ukrainian company Vertex United, owned by two men from Odessa – Boris Kaufman and Oleksander Granovsky. The real bombshell, however, came on Thursday night with two announcements on Forbes.ua. One informed that UMH (the owner of Forbes.ua, as well as Korrespondent and other publications] had sold the holding to SEPEK [or in Russian VETEK]. The new owner is thus Serhiy Kurchenko, a young oligarch with a football club, no links with the media world, but seemingly plenty with those close to the President, in particular the current First Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov.
The second was effectively a letter of resignation from Forbes Chief Editor Volodymyr Fedorin. He writes that he considers the sale of Forbes Ukraine to be the end of the project as it has existed. He is convinced that the buyer has one or all of the following aims: to shut journalists up before the presidential elections; to whiten his own reputation and / or to use the publication for purposes that have nothing in common with media business.
Kurchenko’s assurances that he will not be interfering in editorial policy have been heard too many times over recent times to be convincing.
In February this year, for example, the Inter Media Holding, including one of the major nationwide channels TV Inter, was sold to Dmytro Firtash, and Serhiy Lyovochkin, Head of President Yanukovych’s Administration. From back in 2010 TV Inter, owned by Valery Khoroshkovsky had been up there with the State-owned UTV-1 for worst infringements of journalist standards and muffling of issues unflattering to those in power. This changed fairly dramatically after Khoroshkovsky left the government following the 2012 parliamentary elections. Thus far fears that the Inter buyout by two people loyal to the present regime will lead to a reversal in that progress have not been reflected in monitoring. On the other hand confidence is not inspired by the return of Yegor Benkedorf who from March 2010 oversaw the transformation of the State-owned UTV-1 into a propaganda mouthpiece for the regime.
Monitoring results after just one month under the controversial new ownership of TVi found that the number of news items shown from different points of view had halved.
Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov was rumoured to have bought out the TV channel Business in March. He is also believed to now own the publication Vzglyad though denies this. His example alone makes it quite clear why the draft law on transparent media ownership is for appearance only and will not help to find out who is pulling media strings.
Demoralization among journalists is palpable, and confidence in reassuring noises about non-interference minimal. Nor have the country’s present leaders given any grounds for optimism. Within months of the change in leadership in 2010, most national television channels had become alarmingly bland, lacking in balance and with a formidable and ever-increasing list of muffled issues of public importance.
One of the first casualties was analysis on television programmes, together with presentation of different points of view. TVi was so popular with viewers, and constantly under fire from the authorities, precisely because it offered more analysis and hard-hitting journalist investigations. On the eve of Journalist Day in early June, a number of Ukrainian NGOs expressed concern that “all is being done to purge the media once and for all of isolated centres of independent thought, information, communication and broadcasting, and to intimidate journalists”.
It does not seem accidental that the latest media buyout concerns three socio-political publications providing analysis, sometimes hard-hitting criticism of those in power.
Forbes Inc. which issued a licence to UMH for Forbes Ukraine has a reputation to protect and will be watching developments closely. Others should do so as well, and not just for a month or two. This is not the way you fight democratic elections.