The Security Service of Ukraine on Feb. 5 searched the premises of television channel 1+1 as part of an investigation into a leak of an audio recording of Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk’s conversations.
The recording was published on Jan. 15 and was an apparent attempt to discredit Honcharuk and poison President Volodymyr Zelensky’s opinion of him.
The developments appear to be part of a conflict between Zelensky and oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the channel.
Journalists of 1+1 described the searches as an attack on free speech.
“Such visits are a blatant violation of press freedom and pressure on independent media,” the channel said in a statement.
Ivan Bakanov, head of the Security Service of Ukraine, denied the accusations, arguing that “this has nothing to do with pressure on journalists or a crackdown on free speech.” He said that not only 1+1 but also other premises had been searched.
The security service also searched the homes of two 1+1 journalists.
The searches marked a new turn in Zelensky’s relationship with Kolomoisky and the popular TV channel that had been his employer for years.
The 1+1 channel is home to the shows produced by Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 entertainment company. The channel played an important role in Zelensky’s presidential campaign in spring 2019, covering his candidacy and showing re-runs of his shows en masse.
After the recording of Honcharuk’s conversations with ministers and other top officials was leaked anonymously online, Zelensky ordered the law enforcement to find out who was illegally eavesdropping on the prime minister.
On Jan. 31, ZN.ua news site reported, citing their own sources, that the State Security Service (SBU) discovered that the recording was edited on a computer that belongs to “a journalist of an investigative program on one of Ukraine’s leading TV channels” but is reportedly hesitant to act on this information because of political consequences.
The report found confirmation on Feb. 5, when SBU searched on of the office of the 1+1 TV channel. The office that was searched produces several shows, including one by Oleksandr Dubinsky, a lawmaker and a former journalist at 1+1. Although Dubinsky is a member of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, he is a vocal critic of Honcharuk.
Dubinsky was one of the sources who published the recording of Honcharuk’s conversations online. The audio file that he published on his Telegram channel appeared to have led the SBU to 1+1.
The metadata of the MP3 file shows it was produced by a user identified as “Kuksin.” Yevheny Kuksin is a journalist at 1+1, working alongside Dubinsky.
Kuksin did not respond to a request for comment, but had previously denied that he had anything to do with the recording.
Dubinsky also denied the accusations and claimed that metadata could have been faked to point at Kuksin. However, Kuksin’s name appears in the file that was uploaded to Dubinsky’s own Telegram channel.
The Ukrainska Pravda online newspaper reported on Feb. 6, citing its sources at the Servant of the People, that Zelensky had told party lawmakers at a meeting with them on Feb. 6 that he was sure that 1+1 journalists’ computers had been used to publish the Honcharuk recording, and dismissed accusations that the searches were an attack on the freedom of speech.
The scandalous recording featured the prime minister saying that “Zelensky had a very primitive understanding of the economy” during a Dec. 16 meeting with Cabinet ministers and officials from the the National Bank of Ukraine.
Zelensky on Jan. 17 demanded that law enforcers investigate the leak within two weeks.
Earlier the same day, Honcharuk filed to Zelensky a letter of resignation. It appeared to be a gesture to show loyalty since, according to the law, a prime minister should tender resignation to the parliament rather than the president.
However, Zelensky did not accept Honcharuk’s resignation.
The searches at billionaire oligarch Kolomoisky’s 1+1 channel looked surprising given that Kolomoisky backed Zelensky’s presidential campaign in March and April. Moreover, Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 comedy show airs on 1+1.
However, in recent months Kolomoisky and his allies, including 1+1’s former journalist Dubinsky, have become more critical of Zelensky and his government. Specifically, they have lambasted Honcharuk and some other Zelensky allies.
Kolomoisky has also been unhappy with Zelensky’s support for a bill that would ban the return of PrivatBank, which was formerly owned by the tycoon, to private ownership. The searches of the 1+1 premises took place on the eve of the day when the parliament was scheduled to vote for the bill. The vote was eventually postponed – lawmakers didn’t get to it.
The Ukrainian government nationalized PrivatBank in 2016 after it was found to have an over $5.5 billion hole in its ledger. That money was allegedly extracted by Kolomoisky and his business partner Gennadiy Bogolyubov using fraudulent schemes. Kolomoisky denies the accusations of wrongdoing, and several parallel legal cases over the bank are currently ongoing in Ukrainian and London courts.
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