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Ukraine: Lukoil Apparently Threatens New Nation-Wide TV

Kyiv, 23 Jun 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The anticipated opening of a new Ukrainian nationwide television channel to be co-founded by a major European media company is under threat, due to a recent statement by the country's information minister, a channel founder says. Mykola Knyazhytsky, president of the STB television channel, which has been working recently on opening a new sports and entertainment channel, said his company's foreign partner, one of the largest European media companies, is considering dissolving the contract.

"The company is worried, and the future of the project is under question," Knyazhytsky told a Kyiv news conference yesterday.

STB's plan to announce the opening of a new, national TV channel in the next few weeks became problematic, after Information Minister Zynovy Kulyk said the channel with being bought out by the Russian oil giant Lukoil.

"Lukoil is buying out (Ukrainian) regional TV channels and STB, and wants to open a new TV channel (in Ukraine)," UNIAN news agency quoted Kulyk as saying at a June 18 government meeting. Knyazhytsky said Kulyk's statement, which was widely publicized in pro-government media irked STB's European partner, whose name STB was to disclose after the completion of negotiations. He said STB may consider filing a lawsuit against Kulyk, if any of Ukrainian or foreign investors attracted by STB to participate in the opening of the new channel say they incurred losses due to the minister's statement.

STB, which boasts of an audience of 33-million Ukrainians is, in fact, in cooperation with Lukoil, but on a totally different project. After celebrating its first anniversary this month as one of the most popular Ukrainian TV channels, STB started negotiations with Lukoil on joint production of a car-racing show Lukoil sponsors on the Russian NTV channel. But the success of this program, that was to involve wide promotion of Lukoil products through the show, was also jeopardized by Kulyk, said Knyazhytsky. "After (Kulyk's statement) Lukoil may no longer be interested in cooperation," he said.

However, the Russian oil empire is not among STB owners as Kulyk charged, said STB Commercial Director Dmytro Dahno.

At the Monday press conference, he produced documents showing that STB's foreign owners include Internews Network, a N American, non-profit organization, and Norkros Cover Corp., an off-shore company registered in the Atlantic zone. "There is no Russian investment in STB," said Dakhno.

Kulyk responded by charging the news agencies that covered the June 18 government meeting with misquoting him. "I never said that Lukoil or someone else is buying out STB. I just said that Russian companies are interested in our TV market," Kulyk said in televised comments. "I am not against foreign investment in Ukrainian television."

Independent television observers say Kulyk's statements may be part of a plan to undermine STB, whose independent news coverage clearly sets it apart from most other TV companies. STB news programs sharply criticized the government, during recent miners' strikes, and imposition of direct presidential rule in Odessa. Observers say the government's attempt to suppress STB should not sound unlikely given its intrusion with other media. In particular, a number of opposition newspapers complained last month of criminal investigations state prosecuting bodies were planning against them, which they linked to the government's attempts to put the media under control in the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for October 1999.