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Ukraine: TV Dispute Casts Glare On Broader Problem

At the height of the Orange Revolution in December, Yushchenko vowed to usher in a free media 2 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Ukrainian Supreme Economic Court on 28 April rejected a complaint by the Prosecutor-General's Office against an earlier decision of the Kyiv Appellate Economic Court to approve the expansion of the broadcasting license of the NTN television channel to a nationwide network. Vitaliy Shevchenko, head of the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting (NRPTR), an eight-member constitutional body empowered to issue broadcasting licenses in Ukraine, said the same day that the broadcast council will appeal against the Supreme Economic Court decision.

The legal clash between the authorities and NTN over its license expansion has struck a raw nerve in the media sector in Ukraine, where many broadcasters are widely regarded to have obtained licenses under dubious circumstances. Since NTN is partly owned by Donetsk-based oligarch Eduard Prutnyk, who was once an adviser to ex-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the case also has political undertones.

"The NTN channel considers that the actions of the Prosecutor-General's Office [against NTN] show signs of the witch hunt in the Ukrainian media sector," NTN said in a statement in early April. NTN journalist Volodymyr Kartashkov openly accused President Viktor Yushchenko's administration -- which came to power following the country's recent Orange Revolution -- of resorting to "politically motivated retribution" against his political opponents. NTN journalists organized a series of pickets in front of the presidential administration and the Prosecutor-General's Office in Kyiv in April to protest what they perceived as an official intention to close down their channel.

On Closer Examination

A closer look at the controversy over the NTN license suggests that NTN's allegations of "politically motivated retribution" by the authorities are difficult to substantiate. On the other hand, the authorities' actions with respect to the channel also appear to be motivated by more than simply an intention to restore justice and lawfulness in the media sector.

NTN began its broadcasting on 1 November 2004 under a license issued in April of the same year. In early 2004, NTN -- then known under the name Telestudio Information Service and authorized to broadcast only in Kyiv and Simferopol -- applied to the broadcast council for an expanded license under the new name to beam its programs over 24 frequencies throughout Ukraine.
The authorities' actions with respect to the channel appear to be motivated by more than simply an intention to restore justice and lawfulness in the media sector.

Under Ukraine's law on broadcasting, new frequencies are allotted to broadcasters by the council under a bidding procedure. NTN, which was eager to begin broadcasting before the 2004 presidential election (presumably to support Yanukovych's presidential bid), did not wait until the broadcast council had launched such a tender but turned to courts to get its license expanded. The Kyiv Economic Court and subsequently the Kyiv Appellate Economic Court ordered the broadcast council to amend NTN's license to allow for its expansion. The broadcast watchdog refused to do so, but NTN began nevertheless to broadcast on the basis of the court rulings. In the meantime, it turned out that the courts had ruled that NTN be allowed to broadcast over 75 frequencies in a number of Ukrainian cities.

The broadcast council, whose composition was recently changed to include four Yushchenko nominees (the other four are appointed by the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian legislature), believes that it is the sole authority for allotting new frequencies and that NTN's license expansion was not an amendment of the old license but rather a totally new license. Therefore, the broadcast council argues, NTN must undergo a standard bidding procedure if it wants to broadcast legally on a nationwide scale.

Broader Implications

However, the problem is that NTN is not the only broadcaster in Ukraine whose license has effectively been issued by court. Such broadcasters include the TET and KRT television channels as well as, according to the "Zerkalo nedeli" weekly, the pro-Yushchenko Channel 5, which was generally credited for its substantial contribution to the victory of the opposition-fueled Orange Revolution.

If it is so, some say, then why has the Prosecutor-General's Office singled out NTN in its attempt to restore justice in the media sector and failed to take into account other broadcasters with similarly questionable licenses? Because, NTN answers, the current authorities want a redistribution of broadcasting frequencies to award broadcasters who are sympathetic to the current government.

Whatever the outcome of the current dispute between NTN on one side, and the Prosecutor-General's Office and the broadcast council on the other, one thing is of great importance for the Yushchenko government's image, both at home and abroad: Yushchenko, who claimed to be on the media's side in the battle for freedom during the Orange Revolution, must avoid even the impression that such freedom does not extend to media outlets run by his opponents now that he is in power.

So there are two credible paths to a resolution of the licensing issue. As some Ukrainian observers have suggested, if certain broadcasting licenses are to be questioned, the authorities must apply similar criteria to all potential transgressors and avoid focusing only on those that are uncomfortable to the government. Or, as others have proposed, the revamped broadcast council should simply forget what happened with broadcasting licenses in the past and launch a completely new chapter in their allocation.

[Click here to see RFE/RL's "Press Freedom Day" webpage.]