KYIV, UKRAINE — Journalists and their supporters in Ukraine are protesting what they say is a government attempt to stifle one of the few remaining independent television stations - ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for late October. The station - known as TVi - has been embroiled in tax and administrative disputes with the government, and has begun to disappear from cable networks. Journalists accuse President Victor Yanukovych of giving the order to switch TVi off -- state officials deny involvement.
Ivan Artemenko is disappointed: The Kyiv student’s favorite channel - TVi - has vanished from the airwaves. “I switched on my TV -- there is darkness on a channel TVi. The note says: 'The channel is not supported,'” he said.
TVi has been having trouble with the government for some time. The channel was denied a license for digital transmission. Its director was charged with tax evasion - though the charges were later dropped.
Finally, says general director Mykola Kniazhtsky, TVi simply started disappearing from cable TV networks.
“More than 80 cable operators switched us off. One of the biggest cable operators Triolan switched us off. Another big cable provider, Volia, which is in fact a monopolist in Kyiv, transferred us from a cheap basic package to the expensive one,” she explained.
As a result, TVi’s audience has shrunk to a third its former size - threatening the station’s survival - and also hampering Ukraine's political opposition, which uses TVi as a way to communicate with voters.
TVi's management says the National Council on Television and Radio told cable operators to switch the channel off. The Council denies the charge.
And cable providers deny they are bending to political pressure.
Some say they dropped TVi because of technical reasons, others - because the channel didn’t have high enough ratings. One company, Volia, says it simply optimized its channel lineup. TVi is accessible.
"You can see it for yourself. Nobody has switched it off," she stated. "But in which package it is available -- this is our personal business decision to make.”
Independent experts are skeptical about these explanations - especially during an election campaign. Natalia Ligachova is with the media watchdog group, Telekritika.
“The main responsibility for the situation with TVi channel lies with the Ukrainian authorities. The authorities themselves must provide a possibility for the only opposition channel in Ukraine to operate without obstacles,” she said.
A protest last month in support of TVi drew some 1,500 people. And viewers chipped in to help the station pay its fine when it lost a tax case in court.
The station's editor-in-chief, Vitalii Portnikov, says Ukrainian journalism is now at the last frontier of freedom of speech.
“It is important for us that Ukrainian journalists have freedom of expression, so that our viewers are not constrained, like during the Soviet times, to find out the truth only from the Voice of America or Radio Liberty. This is a shame for the independent state, for a democratic state," said Pornikov. "We are here to tell people the truth by ourselves.”