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Ukraine: Independent Media Suffer More Troubles

Kyiv, 10 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine's non-government media have suffered a series of recent setbacks that have further reduced the dwindling number of independent media outlets in the country.

The trouble-plagued opposition daily Kievskiye Vedomosti suspended publication late last month after it ran out of money. At the same time, another opposition newspaper, Polityka, announced that the state printing press was refusing to publish it, despite a court ruling in the paper's favor. Meanwhile, the state broadcasting company temporarily silenced a private TV channel, while another private TV channel claims it is being harassed and intimidated.

These four cases are the latest chapters in a saga of political and financial problems encountered by independent media in Ukraine.

KIEVSKIYE VEDOMOSTI: According to Dmitry Chekalkin, president of the broadcasting arm of the Kievskiye Vedomosti media company, the newspaper doesn't have the financial resources to continue publishing, including money for newsprint.

The newspaper's deputy editor-in-chief, Irina Titova, said staff wages still have not been paid for the last four months of publication. She said working conditions became intolerable. For its last five months of operation, she said, the newspaper operated with only three phone lines, four computers and no news wire service or Internet access. Titova described the conditions as "working in an information vacuum."

Kievskiye Vedomosti has been dogged by previous misfortunes, most of which it claims were due to political persecution for its oppositionist editorial content.

-- In 1997, the newspaper lost a libel case brought by Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko, though the $500,000 damages award was later overturned by the Supreme Court.

-- Last year, a ruling that awarded $2.5 million to Interior Minister Yury Kravchenko was also overturned, but Titova says the paper's bank accounts remain frozen.

-- In March 1998, one of the paper's owners, Mykhailo Brodsky, was jailed on charges of fraud and corruption. He was released after he won a seat in parliament, which carries with it immunity from prosecution.

-- In October of last year, the editorial staff was evicted from its newsroom -- which it rented from the Kyiv city administration -- after the city invalidated its lease via a court case.

-- The paper disappeared for awhile earlier this year from news kiosks because of a dispute with Soyuzpechat, the state press distribution monopoly. Soyuzpechat -- which owns the building where the paper's printing press is located -- claimed the paper failed to remove the press after its lease ended.

-- The paper also recently lost a lucrative contract with the Prioritet advertising agency. Before the contract expired five months ago, Prioritet paid a fixed sum for exclusive rights to sell advertising in Kievskiye Vedomosti.

Vedomosti broadcasting President Chekalkin said a general decline in advertising -- as well as unfair competition from subsidized papers -- were the major factors in the paper's demise.

He said other Ukrainian newspapers are subsidized by companies close to the presidential administration and the current government and are selling each issue for five or six kopecks (less than 2 U.S. cents). He said "with this unfair competition, it is very hard to survive."

Titova said the editorial staff decided to suspend publication in an attempt to attract attention to the newspaper's plight. She said the newspaper wants its shareholders to pay attention to its problems. She said: "They have to make some decision and not keep us hanging in limbo for five months." The paper's major shareholders are the Ukrainian companies Dendi, Dovira, Ukrrichflot and Pryvatbank.

Natalia Napatovskaya -- a spokeswoman for Pryvatbank in Dnipropetrovsk -- said a decision on what to do with the bank's shares in Kievskiye Vedomosti is imminent. She said the bank understands that the revival of the paper requires a large investment. But she said that at a time when the securities market is crashing, bankers have "other things to worry about than a newspaper that used to be popular."

POLITYKA: The same week that Kievskiye Vedomosti stopped publishing, Polityka announced that the printing house Pressa Ukrainy was refusing to resume printing the Kyiv-based weekly.

Last November, the state printing house received a Pechersk district court order banning it from producing Polityka. A Kyiv city court decision early last month reversed that ruling.

Editor-in-chief Oleh Lyashko said the paper has paid Pressa Ukrainy an advance of 28,000 hryvna (about $7,200) and provided it with 25 tons of paper. Lyashko says repeated letters and visits failed to extract any explanation from Pressa Ukrainy.

"From February 8 we have all legal right to put out the newspaper, but unfortunately to date the newspaper hasn't been issued [by Pressa Ukrainy]. Why? Because Pressa Ukrainy, with which we have worked for three years, now refuses to renew the contract with the newspaper for 1999, and has given absolutely no explanation for that refusal."

Lyashko was asked who he believed was responsible for Polityka's problems.

"The case with Pravda Ukrainy and the case with Polityka were carried out by the same and ordered by the same party. Who ordered it? I think it's the presidential administration."

But a Pressa Ukrainy spokesman (unnamed) said the company's decision was motivated by Polityka's financial unreliability. Last year, the spokesman said the paper twice broke its contract by stopping publication.

The spokesman said Polityka is welcome to take back its advance and paper supplies. He said that the company would send an official answer to the paper by the end of February. Lyashko says he has yet to receive such a response.

Meanwhile, Lyashko says Polityka will be back on the streets starting today due to a new agreement reached with a different publishing house (Kievskaya Notnaya Fabrika).

Polityka has also had several run-ins with the Kyiv district tax administration, which led to closure from June to August 1998 when the administration froze the paper's bank account for non-payment of taxes and imposed a 280,000 hryvna fine (about $72,000). Lyashko said the paper took the case to the arbitration court six times and won each time.

Lyashko himself faces a court action for allegedly defaming the former acting prime minister Vasyl Durdynets. The court hearing has twice been postponed, most recently because court members were suffering from the flu. No date has been set for a new hearing.

Lyashko said the paper's problems are all political and compared them to those of Pravda Ukrainy, whose license was revoked last year by then information minister Zinovy Kulyk in the run-up to general elections last March. Pravda Ukrainy has since disappeared from newsstands.

NART: On the day last month that Kievskiye Vedomosti suspended publishing, the private TV channel NART (National Association of Radio and Television broadcasters) was also taken off the air.

NART -- which used to broadcast in Kyiv and three neighboring regions of Ukraine -- was cut off on Feb. 21 because -- its owners claim -- of its independent political stance.

Volodymyr Tsendrovsky -- president of the Ukrainian TV Union and a founder of NART -- said this is only the first in a chain of private channels that he predicts will be taken off the air. He called it a "rehearsal for political censorship and economic dictatorship in the Ukrainian TV market."

Tsendrovsky admits that NART owes 160,000 hryvna (about $41,000) to the Ukrainian Radio and Television Broadcasting concern, the state company that controls Ukraine's airwaves. But he says that figure is insignificant compared with the debts of many other broadcasting companies, like the state-run TV and radio channels, which he says owe the state broadcasters 62 million hryvna (some $16 million).

NART resumed broadcasting on Feb. 23 after reaching an agreement for paying off its debt. But NART officials still maintain they are victims of political harassment since no other broadcasters owing debts were taken off the air, even temporarily.

STB: A private Ukrainian television network, STB, issued a statement last week to President Leonid Kuchma, saying its executives have been attacked or threatened and requesting the government to increase protection.

An STB official told the Associated Press that -- in the most recent incident --armed attackers broke into the Kyiv apartment of STB's commercial director and forced the man and his pregnant wife to the floor at gunpoint. In searching the apartment, the gunmen ignored money and valuables, apparently looking for documents. Several days earlier, the station official said, an STB cameraman was robbed of his camera and cassettes by unidentified attackers.

The official says the harassment increased after the network broadcast investigative reports about illegal deals in Ukraine's lucrative industries, allegedly involving powerful business groups close to the government.

(Lily Hyde is a Kyiv-based contributor to RFE/RL.)