Ukraine’s media landscape could be reshaped after Channel 5 and TVi, two small stations providing the last vestiges of independent television journalism, lost a dispute over their frequencies.
A Kyiv appeals court ruled in favor of the U.A. Inter Media Group (Inter), the nation’s largest television holding, upholding a lower court decision that analogue frequencies awarded to the station in January were obtained illegally.
At the time, the National Council for Television and Radio awarded Channel 5 with 26 and TVi with 33 analogue frequencies.
The Inter group, owned partly by State Security Service of Ukraine chief Valeriy Khoroshkovksy, praised the court ruling.
“There were several violations,” said Yaroslav Porokhniak, a top executive at the Inter group. The council session lacked a quorum when it awarded the licenses on Jan. 27, he added.
Moreover, Porokhniak said that TVi contested the disputed Jan. 27 council competition “and the judges banned distribution of frequencies until the case is resolved. As of Jan. 27, the ban was still in effect.”
Additionally, Ukraine was supposed to no longer issue analogue frequencies after Jan. 1 because of a nationwide switch to a digital television platform.
The litigation, however, became more than merely a commercial dispute and raised concerns about press freedoms under the administration of President Viktor Yanukovych, who took power on Feb. 25 after defeating ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the presidential election nearly three weeks earlier.
Both TVi and Channel 5 claim the court decision was unfair and marked a return to the era of censorship and political pressure on media, two hallmarks of ex-President Leonid Kuchma’s authoritarian tenure from 1994-2005.
“That’s just what’s happened. Two independent channels who managed to withstand political pressure were deprived of the licenses they were awarded within a totally legitimate competition,” Mykola Kniazhytsky, TVi executive director said.
Noting that the court also canceled frequencies awarded earlier, Kniazhytsky claims Khoroshkovsky is trying to shut down independent broadcasters and enhance the powers of his government-friendly channels, which already dominate the national landscape.
TVi has already lost its regional broadcaster status and, without its analogue frequencies, remains only on satellite and cable. “We’ve lost tens of millions of hryvnias,” Kniazhytsky said.
“We’ve bought and installed 33 transmitters, paid all the license fees to the state, now we are losing even more money as we have to cancel contracts with our advertisers who bought our time thinking we’ll be broadcasting in analogue format [that reaches greater audience].”
Channel 5 is also calculating its losses, but it also has other problems.
The broadcaster needed additional frequencies to increase its coverage in order to split itself into two national channels – informational and educational.
Many media experts think Petro Poroshenko, the owner of Channel 5, was going to sell one of the constituent companies.
The National Council for Television and Radio already approved two separate licenses for it, but now neither has national coverage.
“Without those additional frequencies, the channel will stop broadcasting as a national informational channel,” Tetiana Malashenkova, the Channel 5 lawyer, said.
Theoretically, the management of the broadcaster can apply to the Council on Television and Radio again and request merging of the licenses back to one channel, but nobody believes that the current composition of the Council (where most of members are loyal to the pro-presidential parliamentary coalition) will satisfy this claim.
Both channels are preparing to contest the appeals court ruling in the High Administrative Court and in the European Court of Human Rights.
In the decision, the judges also requested that the general prosecutor’s office start criminal proceedings against the five members of the council who, in their view, awarded the frequencies illegally.
That would be a case being opened against Andriy Mirohnychenko, Yuriy Plaksiuk, Viktor Ponedilko, Tetiana Lebedeva and Tetiana Mokridi. However, the prosecutor’s investigators examined the issue a couple of months ago, but found no ground for starting a criminal case.
Lawmaker Andriy Shevchenko, who used to be the chief editor of Channel 5 in 2005, says the council has to repeat the license competition and award the frequencies in a lawful manner.
Staff writer Olesia Oleshko can be reached at email@example.com
Read also 'Reporters Without Borders cites assaults on free press'.