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Ukraine: TV Channel Finds Itself Under Hostile Fire In Fight For Country's Presidency

One of the biggest complaints made by opposition candidates in Ukraine's presidential election campaign has been lack of access to mass media. Now, the opposition is accusing the government of trying to close down the one television channel that has given sympathetic coverage to the main opposition candidate. The station's staff took to the airwaves in a dramatic live broadcast to protest what it sees as politically motivated efforts to silence its campaign coverage.

Kyiv, 22 October 2004 -- The main opposition candidate in the 31 October presidential election is Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the Our Ukraine bloc.

The only consistently positive television coverage that Yushchenko's campaign has enjoyed in Ukraine has come from Channel 5. The station is owned by Petro Poroshenko, an Our Ukraine deputy in parliament. Poroshenko is a multimillionaire businessman and one of the opposition's biggest financial backers.

The team behind the campaign's other leading candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, has tried -- unsuccessfully -- to have the courts close Channel 5 by revoking its license. This time, Poroshenko is being sued for defamation. The courts have been asked to freeze Poroshenko's assets, including funding for Channel 5.

The station's reporters and staff believe the defamation suit is a pretext for shutting down the station for political motives. On the night of 20 October, they preempted normal programming to state their case to viewers in a dramatic live on-air appearance.

"This is an update of news on Channel 5. I'm Roman Skrypin and welcome. Today, instead of the usual program at 9 p.m., a press conference was held live on air about the sustained pressure on this channel, the freezing of its assets, and the threats to take it off the air in Kyiv. This became the final thing that snapped tolerance here, where despite very complicated circumstances, Channel 5's audience has increased fivefold in a year because of the trust shown by our viewers. The attempt to try to close the channel 10 days before the election is an attempt to deprive viewers of an objective view about what is happening in Ukraine."
The station has been under attack for months, with its license to broadcast in several key regions of Ukraine revoked on what many consider spurious legal grounds.

The defamation suit is being filed by Volodymyr Sivkovych, a deputy who chaired a parliamentary committee that looked into claims by Yushchenko's aides that their candidate had been poisoned. Sivkovych cast doubt on the claims. Poroshenko accused Sivkovych of acting on orders from the Yanukovych camp.

Channel 5's Roman Skrypin said the station's staff is demanding that its financial assets be released, that Sivkovych apologize for his actions, and that the threat of closure be lifted. "The reporters and management of Channel 5 have found themselves in a situation that if the government does not react or agree to our demands, the management and the group of reporters involved in this initiative will -- at 9 p.m. on 25 October -- announce the beginning of a hunger strike," he said.

The station has been under attack for months, with its license to broadcast in several key regions of Ukraine revoked on what many consider spurious legal grounds.

Opinion polls show Yanukovych and Yushchenko running neck and neck. Yanukovych receives plentiful, largely positive, coverage in the media, much of which is controlled by or loyal to the government. Those same outlets -- especially television channels -- devote little coverage to Yushchenko. If they do cover his campaign, it is usually in a derogatory way.

One of Channel 5's senior staff, Yuriy Stetskiv, said he and his colleagues are determined to fight for freedom of speech. He said they will continue to work regardless of whether they are paid. "We're already working with our financial assets frozen. We will see what happens in the future," he said. "But we are not going to stop work in any circumstances. If you think we're working just for money, you're mistaken. We are working now because we want to put into practice that which we advocate each evening [freedom of speech]."

The head of Yanukovych's campaign team, Stepan Havrysh, who is also a deputy in parliament, denies that his candidate is behind the current legal actions against Channel 5. "I can assure you that Prime Minister Yanukovych, who is running for president, has nothing to do with [this matter of] Channel 5," he said.

But Havrysh did not disguise his dislike of the station. "I can see how they fight with so much dedication for their candidate for president, Yushchenko, so thoroughly, 24 hours a day -- well, not 24 hours a day, of course. But no other channel battles so one-sidedly, sometimes dishonestly, but to the advantage of their candidate," Havrysh said.

He admitted that Yanukovych's team has made previous attempts to close the station. "Yes, we made a complaint to the courts, but the matter against Channel 5 was stopped by the Central Election Commission, and we are not taking any more legal steps because we understand that this process is hopeless, because neither the Central Election Commission nor the Supreme Court want to get involved in political discussions, especially at that level," Havrysh said.

Yushchenko said he has no doubts that the government and Yanukovych are encouraging the attempt to shut down Channel 5. He compared it to other actions taken by the government to curb media freedom in Ukraine, including depriving Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty of FM channel coverage in Kyiv and many other places in Ukraine earlier this year.

"This is the same speculative reasons as those involved in the closing of Radio Liberty, Radio Era, and other printed and radio media. The government has found a completely invented pretext," Yushchenko said.

This morning, Channel 5 was still operating, but staff members are uncertain when the courts might make a move to shut them down.

[For full coverage of the run-up to Ukraine's presidential elections, see RFE/RL's webpage on Ukraine.]