Authorities said the criminal investigation targets Mykola Kniazhytsky, TVi's director, for evasion of Hr 3 million in taxes.
Editor's Note: The author of this article, Katya Gorchinskaya, hosts a Thursday night news show on TVi.
Two major media outlets in Ukraine are continuing to fight for their survival.
The noose around the independent channel TVi, which has broadcast some of the nation’s best investigative journalism, continues to tighten. It was kicked out of a major cable network in 11 cities on July 20.
At the same time, LB.ua, a political news site, is voicing concerns that a criminal case against them for invasion of privacy is meant to shut down the organization. The site resumed work, however, on July 24 after several days on strike.
In an assault on a separate front, a Party of Regions lawmaker introduced a law on July 24 to make libel a criminal act punishable by fines of up to Hr 85,000 and imprisonment of up to five years.
These three events are the latest alarm bells in what appears to be a coordinated campaign to crack down on independent media ahead of the Oct. 28 parliamentary election. They also point to signs of a power struggle among the nation's top officials.
TVi is a relatively small channel with a strong bite. It is often viewed as the only independent-minded channel on a landscape heavily dominated by pro-presidential media. LB.ua is a political news site that jumped to top 10 most popular websites since its conception in 2008.
Both media outlets believe that they are being persecuted for political reasons as a part of an orchestrated effort. TVi came into the spotlight most recently after tax police raided the channel earlier this month and confiscated four years worth of financial documents. Authorities said the raid targests Mykola Kniazhytsky, the company's director, for evasion of Hr 3 million in taxes.
TVi's lawyers said, however, that a court annulled the tax evasion claim and that an appeal is ongoing, a step that should halt further inspections.
Kniazhytsky suspects that there may be more cases against him. On the eve of the July 12 tax raid, he said someone alerted him that the authorities attempted to confiscate his medical records from a clinic.
Kniazhytsky said that confiscation of medical and other personal records is part of the procedure that takes place before a suspect is arrested. However, he cannot be detained on a tax evasion charge, which only provides for steep fines in case of conviction. Kniazhytsky said similar steps were taken before Yulia Tymoshenko’s arrest in August 2011. Soon after, she was convicted of abuse-of-office in her role as prime minister and sentenced in October to seven years in prison.
In the meantime, TVi is losing regional coverage after major cable operator Triolan unplugged the channel in 11 cities, and replaced it with Bankivske TV, the National Bank’s taxpayer-financed channel. The station heavily promotes National Bank chief Serhiy Arbuzov.
Triolan's representative in Kyiv said the switch happened “by accident,” but cannot be reversed for a number of technical reasons.
"This channel [Bankivske TV] is a part of a pool of those that are yet to be plugged into our network of digital channels. And the recent decision by the National Council [for TV and Radio] requires us to do it. We cannot switch the channels around anymore because we'll now be asked questions why we have switched off Bankivske TV,” said Vadym Sidorenko, Triolan's Kyiv representative.
But TVi said the real reason for the switch lies in direct order of one of Triolan's owners, Kharkiv Mayor Gennadiy Kernes. Kniazhytsky claims that the mayor gave a direct order to switch off TVi, as well as another channel in Kharkiv that shows the channel's programs. The mayor's spokesman denied the accusations.
In the meantime, the president's spokeswoman expressed her concerns with the shenanigans around TVi and LB.ua, whose chief editor is still out of Ukraine, fearing criminal prosecution and imprisonment. In their case, prosecutors started investigating an alleged breach of privacy involving broadcast text messages by a Party of Regions lawmaker, who has said publicly he no longer has any complaints.
Presidential spokeswoman Darka Chepak said both cases will be studied at the July 30 meeting of a working group on media issues.
“Also invited are representatives of international human rights organizations Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, Article 19, Open Society and experts of the Council of Europe,” she said in a statement on the presidential website on July 23.
LB.ua reacted by posting their own statement the next day, saying that they consider the group a farce. The website said that they made an open appeal to the president before their criminal case was started, asking for Yanukovych’s intervention.
“We think that the very fact that the criminal case was started is the real answer to our open appeal,” the statement said.
Kniazhytsky of TVi plans to attend the working group, although his expectations are low. “I don't know any precedents when the tax authorities backtracked on their claims and apologized,” he says.
He hopes that the debate will make it clearer for all politicians concerned that oppression of the media and free speech will bring little benefit to them and potentially could cause them great harm.
Kyiv Post editor Katya Gorchinskaya can be reached at email@example.com