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Last-Minute Lawsuit: Ukraine President Targets Oligarch's TV Channel Ahead Of Tight Election

A placard depicting Ukrainian entertainer and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) as a puppet for oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy in Lviv in February.
A placard depicting Ukrainian entertainer and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) as a puppet for oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy in Lviv in February.

KYIV -- When it comes to distracting from the issues troubling most Ukrainians ahead of this weekend's presidential election, the rough-and-tumble among the leading candidates has rarely disappointed.

There have been allegations of vote buying, murky campaign donations, and wiretaps.

In the latest twist, the race threatened to spill over into the courts as President Petro Poroshenko's team announced a lawsuit against a TV station owned by a longtime foe linked to the incumbent's leading challenger.

Poroshenko's camp on March 25 accused the 1+1 TV channel of airing "systematic lies" and "disinformation" about him as revenge for a contentious nationalization dispute.

The TV station's owner, Ihor Kolomoyskiy, owned PrivatBank, Ukraine's biggest lender, until its nationalization in 2016 amid allegations of massive fraud.

1+1 broadcasts the traveling comedy show and sitcom of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the actor and candidate who plays a fictional president on TV and has led most opinion polls for months.

The station's management called the lawsuit a "public relations" move by a president fighting for his political survival and said all its news programming was grounded in facts.

Three independent pollsters this week reported that Zelenskiy still held a commanding lead, with Poroshenko vying with the populist former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for second place.

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Unless one candidate wins a majority outright -- and those same polls suggest that is unlikely -- the top two finishers advance to a second round on April 21.

A whopping 39 candidates are on the first-round ballot.


Artur Herasymov, head of the president's Petro Poroshenko Bloc-Solidarity party in parliament, announced the lawsuit in a statement published on the official website of Poroshenko's election campaign.

"Petro Poroshenko has made his mind to sue Channel 1+1 for systematic lies on a large scale, for spreading enormous disinformation detrimental to the honor and dignity of the presidential candidate and president," Herasymov said.

"Obviously, Mr. Kolomoyskiy is guided by a sense of revenge on the state," Herasymov claimed, citing the PrivatBank case.

Ukraine's central bank made the decision to nationalize PrivatBank in late 2016, saying the move was necessary to protect some 20 million customers and "preserve financial stability in the country."

The central bank later said an investigation into PrivatBank showed it had been "subjected to a large-scale and coordinated fraud" by Kolomoyskiy over at least a decade, a charge that he has rejected.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) and Ihor Kolomoyskiy meet in Kyiv in March 2015.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) and Ihor Kolomoyskiy meet in Kyiv in March 2015.

"At any price, without hesitating to employ the dirtiest methods, [Kolomoyskiy] seeks to prevent a Petro Poroshenko victory in the presidential election," Herasymov said.

'PR Campaign'

Kolomoyskiy's 1+1 responded by calling Poroshenko's accusations "baseless" and said that "every fact that was cited in the journalistic investigations is supported by evidence and witnesses."

The broadcaster said that filing a lawsuit mere days before the election was "more like an element of a preelection promotional campaign than a real refutation in court of supposedly false information voiced on air."

"Such a reaction from the presidential candidate at the height of the election campaign once again demonstrates the weak and unjustified position of the current government," 1+1 added.

Ukrainian tycoon Ihor Kolomoyskiy (file photo)
Ukrainian tycoon Ihor Kolomoyskiy (file photo)

The company also leveled its own accusations, charging that "media that are associated with Petro Poroshenko have long violated journalistic norms and...been transformed into outright propaganda."

Poroshenko is the owner of Channel 5, whose television news programs have been critical of Kolomoyskiy as well as Zelenskiy.

Ukrainians Tuning In

While news consumption via the Internet is on the rise, roughly three-quarters of Ukrainians still mainly watch TV news to stay informed, according to recent studies. Hence, the attention from powerful oligarchs, five of whom control the country's leading television channels.

And while studies show trust in TV outlets has increased in recent years, television remains a "source for fake news as well," media analyst Taras Shevchenko told Hromadske Radio in a recent interview.

'A Very Loud Day Of Silence'

Besides Poroshenko's lawsuit and allegations, 1+1 has come under scrutiny over its programming lineup for March 30, the day before the election.

Under Ukrainian law, the day before any political election should be a "day of silence," with no campaigning allowed. But Ukrainian politicians have found clever ways to get around the law, including putting up billboards that look identical to their official campaign posters -- minus the candidates' name and party.

This week, photos circulated on social media showing purple billboards going up around the country with the word "Think" plastered across them, closely resembling Poroshenko's official campaign billboards.

The 1+1 preelection program lineup includes at least two slots for Zelenskiy's comedy show and a documentary about U.S. President Ronald Reagan that is narrated by Zelenskiy.

Some Ukrainians have drawn comparisons between Reagan and Zelenskiy -- two men who were successful actors before entering politics. Critics alleged that airing programs clearly aimed at bolstering Zelenskiy's campaign violated the "day of silence" law.

But 1+1 disagreed, saying the comedy shows were reruns that showed Zelenskiy "as an actor, not a candidate" and that two other shows set to air would not in any way include him.

Novoye Vremya reporter Kristina Berdynskykh, who first noticed the lineup, called it "a very loud day of silence."

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