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Yanukovych Cracks Down on Independent Media

Ukraine’s only fully independent television station, TVi, has come under renewed attack by the Regionnaire regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. The move is obviously intended to deprive the public of alternative information in the run-up to the October 2012 parliamentary elections. Since all polls show the Regionnaires cannot win a fair and free contest, the crackdown on TVi is also a practice run of the kind of mass falsification they will employ to claim victory.

Ukraine’s notorious tax police raided TVi’s offices on July 12th and confiscated four years’ worth of financial documents. The authorities subsequently charged TVi’s CEO and general director with tax evasion. The charge is especially absurd inasmuch as the authorities owe the station value added tax (VAT) reimbursements. As its irrepressible CEO, Mykola Kniazhytsky, put it: “There’s a saying among gangsters: I forgive everyone I owe something. Insofar as we live in a gangster state, that saying has been transformed: I don’t forgive anyone I owe something.” Although the Kyiv city procurator’s office withdrew the charges on July 27th, the message to independent media was loud and clear: express critical opinions at your own risk.

According to Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, the claim of non-payment of taxes “is a favorite method by means of which the state organs of the former USSR harass the opposition and inconvenient businessmen. TVi is in fact the only independent television station in Ukraine that engages in open criticism of President Viktor Yanukovych and his circles. All other stations either belong to oligarchs with whom he’s connected or to businessmen who do not want to criticize the authorities openly.”

Regime harassment of TVi began in 2010, just after Yanukovych’s election, and has continued, more or less uninterrupted, since. It usually peaks in the summer months, when Ukrainians are distracted by vacations and trouble-making students are at home. Just before the tax police launched its assault on Kniazhytsky, TVi had been denied a license to broadcast digitally. As a result, it will reach less than half of Ukraine’s population via cable and satellite, while regime-friendly channels with digital licenses will access all viewers. That matters, as most Ukrainians get their news from television. 

The attack on TVi comes as the regime cracks down on one of Ukraine’s feistiest Internet sites, Left Bank. Its editor, Sonia Koshkina, fled the country in early July after a Regionnaire bigwig filed bogus criminal charges against the site. The other shoe dropped on July 18th, when a Kyiv district prosecutor’s office charged the site with “violating the secrecy of the letter writing or other correspondence of a state person … and the illegal collection, use, and dissemination of confidential information, thereby causing significant harm to the rights, liberties, and interests of the person.” That same day, the site was closed down. Left Bank’s “crime” was to disseminate a photograph of Regionnaire parliamentarian Volodymyr Landik’s text message to his playboy son, Roman, who had been videotaped pummeling a woman in a Luhansk restaurant on July 4, 2011, and subsequently imprisoned.

According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group:

On 18 November [2011] during the parliamentary vote on the parliamentary elections bill, LB.ua [Left Bank] photographed Party of the Regions MP Volodymyr Landik texting his son who was at that time in custody … LB.ua says that from the contents of the SMS it is clear that in order to optimize his son’s image, Landik Senior is engaging political technologists as well as journalists from the Luhansk TV company to write positive comments in the news and texts about the Landik Junior trial. At the time Landik Senior made various aggressive statements, including a demand that Ms. Koshkina “publish her sanitary pads” but only approached the Prosecutor 8 months later … The LB.ua editorial team express surprise at the Prosecutor’s request for information in respect to this application and cannot exclude the possibility of a political aspect to the case. The fact that Landik Senior waited so long arouses wariness, they add and say that their lawyers do not see any unlawful behavior in the actions of the journalists.

The regime’s attack on both TVi and LB.ua portends the kind of dirty tricks it will use in the parliamentary elections this fall. Having consistently ignored the well-being of the population while promoting their own lavish lifestyles, the Regionnaires can win if and only if they cheat—and everybody knows it. Naturally, such a strategy requires curbing media freedoms. After all, skullduggery works best if no one knows it’s going on.

Fortunately, many Ukrainians have rallied around TVi and Left Bank, and the battle is far from lost. Most people understand that the elections are critical and that, if both news outlets go, the Regionnaires will falsify at will. In that sense, the battle for the stations’ survival is not just a struggle for media freedom. It’s a struggle for the soul of Ukraine. Will it finally become a country in which ordinary people enjoy human dignity or will it remain the feudal property of Regionnaire robber barons?

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