KYIV, Feb. 21 - A popular Ukrainian television channel ZIK is facing an increasing pressure from the authorities after inviting a number of politicians critical of the government to its talk shows.
Over the past few months teams of tax officials raided offices scrutinizing the channel’s operation, while its headquarters had been searched by police. But there were also more sinister actions.
“We faced persistent sabotage, such as sudden disruption of live broadcasts from the switchboard service,” Ihor Turkevych, the general director of ZIK, said. “And recently attackers physically damaged the cables so ZIK was off-the-air for 8 hours.”
But the pressure culminated when ZIK executive producer and political talk show host Natasha Vlashchenko has recently received death threats for inviting a staunch critic of the government to the show.
Minutes before the show was to start, a pro-government lawmaker called Vlashchenko to deliver the warning: he asked if she had remembered what happened to Oles Buzyna, a controversial journalist who was gunned down in front of his home in April 2015.
"The lawmaker from the People’s Front phoned and threatened. He asked if I remember the fate of Buzyna,” Vlashchenko said. "That’s how they’ve dropped a hint.”
The recent developments throw new light on a mysterious car accident in August 2017 in the Lviv region involving an automobile of ZIK investor Petro Dyminskiy.
A woman was killed in the accident when her car had collided with the automobile driven by Dyminskiy’s bodyguard, according to Mykola Lysyi, Dyminskiy’s lawyer.
Ukraine’s top law enforcement officials have immediately accused Dyminskiy of the crash and launched a relentless campaign of political pressure in the media, forcing him to flee the country.
As Dyminskiy’s defense team prepared for a legal battle, Glib Zagoriy, a lawmaker from President Petro Poroshenko’s group in Parliament, on December 6 2017 contacted Dyminskiy to ask if he has been willing to transfer ZIK into management by Zagoriy.
Dyminskiy flatly rejected the offer. Six days later a local Ukrainian court granted an arrest warrant, after which Dyminskiy had been quickly placed on the list of people wanted by police.
“The accusations are the direct result of Dyminskiy’s refusal to transfer the television assets into management by Poroshenko’s people,” ZIK said in a statement.
The developments underscore challenges faced by the country’s journalists amid persistent demands from the European Union and the United States for Ukraine to step up the fight against corruption.
This also shows why Ukraine has been trailing as No. 102 out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, an annual ranking compiled by the Reporters Without Borders.
Many view the increasing pressure on media as an attempt by Poroshenko to change political landscape in the country ahead of the next presidential election in 2019.
“The truth is that Petro Poroshenko has been gradually mastering Russian methods of suppressing alternative politicians,” Serhiy Leshchenko, a lawmaker and anti-corruption crusader, said. “He muffled criticism on central television channels.”
If so, ZIK would be the perfect target. Its ratings have steadily increased over the past year, making it the third biggest television news channel by audience in Ukraine. Also, ZIK is one of a few television stations that are still not under direct control of Poroshenko and his entourage.
The vote next year will be the first presidential election since Poroshenko took office in June 2014 following massive street protests throughout the country, known as the Revolution of Dignity, the annexation of the Crimea peninsula by Russian President Vladimir Putin and war in the East of the country with Moscow-backed separatists.
As Poroshenko’s popularity plunged from 54.7% in the 2014 presidential race to 7.6% in December 2017, according to data by the Democratic Initiatives foundation, authorities sought to streamline media coverage to ensure support for the President in an attempt to increase his popularity.
But ZIK has repeatedly ignored attempts by the authorities to influence its selection of talk show guests and discussion topics, choosing instead to promote free speech.
ZIK, which started in Lviv, western Ukraine, as a local information agency in 2004 and expanded into television broadcast in 2010, had recently added Russian language to its programming with an aim at bigger audience.
“Russian language programming helps communicate our values to people in the east and the south of Ukraine, where Russian still dominates,” Turkevych said. “Our influence grows as our audience expands. And it feels like political pressure against ZIK rises accordingly.”
With the political pressure on the channel rising dramatically over the past several months, many see a storm gathering ahead.
“We are aware that they can shut us down anytime,” Turkevych said. “We already see first signs of that. For example, on March 1 they will remove the National Guard that has been protecting our offices.”
But whatever happens, ZIK will not surrender without a fight. The channel has already sent out letters to international journalist organizations, and also seeking support from embassies of the U.K., Germany, France, Lithuania, Poland, Canada, the U.S., and others.
"We are ready to uphold the freedom of speech in Ukraine to the last. We will continue to give the floor to representatives of opposition parties and social activists that the government hates so much,” Vlashchenko said. “Ukrainians need to know the truth about what is happening in Ukraine.” (nr/ez)