Yushchenko Vows to Safeguard Media Rights

KIEV, Ukraine -- President Viktor Yushchenko's pledge to safeguard media rights — a promise that helped swing support behind last year's Orange Revolution — is facing its first real test in a bitter legal battle over a TV company linked with the former regime.

The dispute could topple Ukraine's NTN television, the funding for which comes from a businessman linked to former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who lost last year's presidential race.

NTN's Nataliya Katerynchuk

Prosecutors are challenging NTN's right to beam its news programs into homes across this nation of 48 million, claiming NTN is using frequencies it didn't pay for and wasn't entitled to. NTN denies the charges, calling the challenge a politically motivated effort to transfer its airspace to more friendly hands.

Analysts say the dispute could easily backfire on Yushchenko if the nation is left with the impression that the new government's commitment to a free press doesn't extend to media outlets owned by its opponents.

"It's one of those cases that I think many people believe is justified, but they have yet to see proof ... and that isn't reassuring," said Kiev-based political analyst Inna Pidluska.

A Kiev court is due to consider the case on May 19.

NTN is a relatively new player on Ukraine's media field, but its sleek design, fast-paced programming and aggressive attitude has won it a dedicated following. Editor-in-chief Nataliya Katerynchuk said the station strives for an independent viewpoint with a motto that journalists have to at times "spill the blood of politicians."

So far, it has adopted a moderate course. The station's biggest problem with the new government came amid their attempts to profile government ministers at home — with those "living in big country homes with Rolls Royces being the most unreceptive," Katerynchuk said.

The station is bankrolled by Eduard Prutnik, a former adviser to Yanukovych from eastern Ukraine, a region hostile to Yushchenko.

Originally granted a license to broadcast only in Kiev and the surrounding region, the station sought agreements last year to use military frequencies to expand its reach to 75 cities.

Ukraine's National Television and Radio Council had refused to approve the expansion, prompting NTN to seek approval to expand its license in the courts. It won approval in two court decisions.

The council has called such a backdoor method illegal and said that if NTN wants to expand its license it must go through an open bidding procedure. Ukrainian prosecutors filed a lawsuit against the company, saying it shortchanged the state budget; NTN says it paid $411,000 for the rights.

While prosecutors remain largely silent about the proceedings, awaiting next month's court hearing, NTN has launched a full-bore defense. It co-opted Yushchenko's orange campaign color — draping an orange banner across its logo with the words "Keep Silent."

A video clip montage features journalists with their mouths muzzled with orange tape. NTN's reporters have held noisy protests in central Kiev, and the station has erected tents outside subway stations to collect signatures in its support.

Valeriy Ivanov, of the Ukrainian Academy of Press, said that the method NTN used to acquire its license was "cloudy enough ... but the question does arise: why is only NTN being singled out?"

Such fears of political retribution resonate now in Ukraine, where the short honeymoon granted to the new authorities has already given way to political posturing ahead of next spring's parliamentary election, a contest that Yushchenko's supporters must win if they want to see the Orange Revolution remain intact.

Most analysts said they expected the government to seek some kind of compromise that won't close NTN, a move they said could hurt Yushchenko's friend-of-the-media credentials and prompt tougher criticism from other media outlets in the hands of Yushchenko's opponents.