Ukrainian TV channel cries political pressure after backlash to airing “foreign” RFE/RL & BBC programs
Article by: Olena Makarenko with contributions by Alya Shandra
The Ukrainian media Espreso TV is saying it is being pressured after the Ukrainian state media regulator scheduled an unplanned inspection of the channel. The reason for the inspection is eerily reminiscent of Soviet times: broadcasting programs of the Ukrainian desks of the BBC and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which Ukraine’s National Council on TV and Radio Broadcasting said was a violation.
The regulator accused Espreso TV of breaching its license agreement, according to which national audio and visual products should comprise 100% of its broadcast time. According to the regulator, Espreso has allegedly violated the agreement by broadcasting 1 hours and 11 minutes of BBC and RFE/RL programs a day (some 5% of its total broadcast time).
In its statement, the channel claimed it was a victim of political pressure:
“Espreso TV channel believes that the times of the USSR when one could have been repressed for listening to Radio Liberty and BBC have passed long ago. We call on the National Council to stopthe illegal pressure aimed at counteracting the spread of democratic civilizational values in the Ukrainian information field.”
Espreso claims the inspection constitutes political pressure because it has been cooperating with broadcasting RFE/RL programs since the Euromaidan Revolution. Since 2014, the channel went through several planned inspections from the National Council with no warnings. Moreover, the Ukrainian desk of RFE/RL produces its programs in Ukraine and therefore can’t be considered foreign media products.
Espreso TV relates the change in the approach of the state’s regulator in the change of the political regime in Ukraine “which is a sign of the start of political repressions.”
However, the channel actually did apply to the National Council with a statement requesting to make changes to the license related to the broadcasting of the foreign production program on 16 March. The channel experienced the need to broadcast foreign products due to the difficult economic situation.
During the quarantine caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Council has been holding only online-meetings without the participation of licensee representatives. Eventually, more than two months later, the channel did not receive an answer to the request.
Espreso TV stresses that the whole situation was caused by the inaction of the National Council itself.
“When the National Council says in a press release that the programs of the Ukrainian service of Radio Svoboda and the BBC NEWS Ukraine are ‘foreign-made programs’, it once again demonstrates that the National Council has already found the TV channel a violator without an inspection,” says the statement.
The National Council in its turn stated that the decision on the unscheduled inspection can’t count as pressure, because it has a right to appoint an inspection to establish facts of violation.
But the regulator had already determined Espreso is guilty, the TV channel believes, as it wrote that the RFE/RL and BBC shows are “programs of foreign production” without any inspection.
“In these circumstances, the inspection becomes only a formality to legally enshrine the desire of individual members of the National Council to initiate political persecution of the news channel,” Espreso stated.
At the same time, Oleksandr Iliashenko, a member of the National Council, expressed his concern about the decision. It turns out that the Council itself asked the TV industry to inform the regulator if they can’t adhere to their license in difficult COVID-19 times, which Espreso did. Espreso’s letter was not reviewed for a whole month, and then suddenly the regulator decides to investigate the channel – for doing exactly what it was asked to do.
Serhiy Kostynskyi, an ex-member of the National Council, stressed that the majority of the members of the regulator are the former employees of the 1+1 or Kvartal-95 Studio. This is concerning because 1+1 is the TV channel that belongs to the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, Kvartal-95 is the comedy studio of Volodymyr Zelenskyy which brought popularity to the future president. Kvartal-95 shows, including the series “Servant of the People,” have been broadcast at the 1+1 TV channel.
Kostynskyi is confident that such a situation within the regulator threatens independent TV and radio broadcasting in Ukraine, especially the broadcasters whose programs are criticized by the president or the current government.
RFE/RL program Skhemy takes a hit from Zelenskyy
Remarkably, on 20 May, Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the press-conference devoted to the year of his presidency complained about the work of the hard-hitting investigative program “Skhemy: Corruption in Details” produced by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian service and UA:Pershyi, Ukraine’s nationwide public broadcaster. Specifically, the president claimed that Skhemy’s journalist Mykhailo Tkach “is chasing the motorcade of the head of the country,” asking if “anybody else in the world has the nerve?” to do that and hinting that Tkach was improperly raised by his parents. Apparently, this was an expression of irritation at Skhemy’s close attention to his activities.
Tkach, who was not at the press conference, later remarked that Zelenskyy was elected riding upon promises of transparency and a no-frills style of governance without motorcades.
“Not having any arguments at the level of the head of state, he decided to pick on my parents,” he said.
Particularly troubling was Zelenskyy’s referral to the funding of Radio Liberty, a media which was essential in breaking down the fog of communist propaganda in the Soviet Bloc and nowadays exists in countries with unsatisfactory states of media freedom, by the State Department of the USA. “What a free and democratic country we have, what a nice attitude we have towards journalists who are funded even not by Ukraine, but other states.”This eerily resembles the rhetoric of Vladimir Putin, where NGOs receiving funds from abroad are designated as “foreign agents,” which not only serves the purpose of tarnishing them amid the anti-western hysteria propped up by the Kremlin but is a conduit for suppressing opposition groups. Zelenskyy’s statements are, unfortunately, a reflection of the mainstreaming of anti-Western rhetoric in Ukraine amid the resurgence of pro-Russian forces from the times of exiled ex-President Viktor Yanukovych. A vivid example of this is the campaign against mythical “Sorosites,” a blanket term for all western-oriented reformers in Ukraine.
The editorial office of Skhemy, in their turn, stated that they act in the interests of society, not the government, and that all the journalists of the program act in terms of the legislation and according to the journalistic standards. Editor-in-chief of the program Natalia Sedletska stated that the Ukrainian authorities are irritated by the work of indepenвent media who highlight their shortcomings and unfulfilled promises.
Jamie Fly, President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, responded to Zelenskyy as well by saying that “A vibrant media is essential for a functioning democracy” and that RFE/RL will not be deterred from the work of bringing facts to the people of Ukraine.
Kostynskyi also noted that considering the criticism from society and in order to balance out the situation, the National Council upon a request from the Security Service of Ukraine scheduled an inspection for the 1+1 channel as well – due to its broadcasting the map of Ukraine without Crimea. Still, the expert does not expect any sanctions to be applied to the channel and believes that this step was intended to divert attention from the real attacks on independent media.