Goodbye Radio Vesti


Photograph by Mykhailo Liapin

by Valery Kalnysh

Since 4 March, you can no longer tune into Radio Vesti — Ukraine’s only talk radio station —in Kyiv. Prior to this, nearly all of the radio station’s journalists resigned, as well as most of the station’s technical staff. Radio Vesti stopped its broadcast operation after a decision by the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council, which regulates Ukraine’s airwaves. The management of the Vesti Ukraine media holding, which owns the station, believes that this decision is direct evidence of censorship in Ukraine. Everyone here is right, but, as always, no one is telling the whole truth.

On 3 March, the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council refused to extend Radio Vesti’s broadcast license in Kyiv. Two weeks before, the National Council refused to issue the station a broadcast license for Kharkiv. Now only the residents of Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk) can listen to the station’s analogue broadcast — Radio Vesti had permission to broadcast only in three cities, elsewhere people listened online. But the station’s listeners won’t hear anything new: the station is broadcasting only news bulletins and programmes from its archive. Ukraine’s only talk radio station has more or less stopped working.

Tuning out

The National Council explained its decision not to extend Radio Vesti’s license by referring to the fact that the station had received four warnings. This, according to the opinion of the regulatory body, is evidence that the station is systematically violating Ukraine’s media legislation. It’s worth noting that it was the National Council that issued these warnings in the first place.

One of these warnings was issued on my watch. In July 2014, I was deputy editor at Vesti (later – editor-in-chief) when the words of one separatist militia leader in the Donbas made their way on air: “We have to help Orthodox Russian people clean our lands of filth and fascism.”

It seems I also caused the second warning from the National Council. In December 2014, I conducted a live on-air interview with Andriy Portnov, the former deputy head of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidential administration who fled the country after the EuroMaidan protests and was the subject of a criminal investigation for embezzlement.

Why “it seems”? Because this second warning was followed by a strange story: the National Council couldn’t receive the recording of my interview with Portnov because of a change of address. This change of address, meanwhile, did not prevent members of the National Council from appearing on air at Radio Vesti or visiting the studio. Indeed, one of the members of the National Council who issued the final decision against Radio Vesti even offered his services as a presenter for Vesti in the past, though now, it seems, he doesn’t wish to discuss this in public.

It would appear I’m responsible for the station’s third warning, too. The appropriate complaint was made to the National Council regarding an interview I conducted with Nikolai Azarov, Ukraine’s fugitive prime minister, in April 2016. The National Council suspected that “doubtful information of a subjective character was apparent in the statements [of Azarov], which distort reality and create a false idea of what is happening in Ukraine among viewers [of the station].”

But these warnings are, of course, mere formalities. It’s no secret that Radio Vesti has been closed for different reasons. The first rumours concerning the station’s real owner began to emerge around six months after the station launched in March 2014. Later, these rumours were confirmed, and the owner turned out to be Alexander Klimenko, another member of Viktor Yanukvoych’s team who fled the country and Ukraine’s minister of revenue between 2012-2014.

Ukraine’s current regime couldn’t reconcile itself with the fact that a representative of the old order was the indirect owner of a popular talk radio station. Klimenko’s ownership could not be proved, because Klimenko’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the registration documents. But even if it had, this would be an ambiguous motive for closing the station — Klimenko is a Ukrainian citizen, and there is no court decision regarding his activities. This is why the topic of Radio Vesti’s opaque ownership structure came up so often in public debate.

The station never confirmed its connection to Klimenko. Even when Olga Semchenko, the head of Vesti Ukraina’s board of directors, and Alexander Klimenko decided to get married. “The National Council has finally recommended itself not just as a repressive, but a regressive body,” commented Olga Semchenko. “The policy designed to seize, ban and punish – this is a regressive policy. This is a path to a totalitarian Ukraine. The officials of the National Council are just carrying out a political order, they don’t have any initiative of their own.”

There’s an element of truth in Semchenko’s statement. No one managed to influence the station’s editorial team in terms of political loyalty. The station’s journalists were neither for Ukraine’s authorities, nor against the opposition. The people who worked at Radio Vesti were a genuinely patriotic team: they travelled to the Donbas to report on the conflict, the whole editorial team gathered donations for people displaced by the conflict, and called the “war” a “war”, not an “Anti-Terrorist Operation”.

A very patriotic problem 

Representing all points of view in today’s Ukraine is difficult. I’m not talking about criticising the authorities — president Poroshenko or the Cabinet of Ministers — you can rage against them all you want. I’m talking about criticising the general discourse and the personalised trajectory of Ukrainian politics. If you criticise the country’s values, history, national heroes, call the separatists in the Donbas “militias” or ask whether it was right to force Viktor Yanukovych out, then you’re instantly added to the list of unreliable individuals, you’ll be called an “agent of the Kremlin”. You can’t criticise public opinion. You can’t criticise where the country’s headed.

Radio Vesti definitely caused problems for the authorities. The powers-that-be weren’t afraid that criticism of the government would make it onto the airwaves — there’s no problem with that. Or that the station would start promoting anti-Ukrainian attitudes — though there were concerns about this.

Their fear, it seems to me, was broader. The station’s audience, who rang in to speak on air throughout the day (their calls weren’t moderated, no one censored the callers), constantly expressed their dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction continued to grow, taking various forms and charting new boundaries, but the background remained the same — people in Ukraine are unhappy with their lives. Not Ukraine’s politicians per se (that goes without saying), but the way everyday life is going.

And so Philippe Lereuth, president of the International Federation of Journalists, is right when he says: “The abrupt revocation of Radio Vesti’s license undermines the right to freedom of expression, media pluralism and diversity of media content, which are essential for the running of any democratic society. We condemn such unfair actions by the National Council and ask this body to permit to restart broadcasting immediately until there has been a thorough review of the circumstances around this decision which only succeeds in punishing the public and the station’s employees.”

But there’s another truth, too. Certain people wanted to use Radio Vesti for the return of Alexander Klimenko to Ukraine. There were stories written about Klimenko’s political party. After a time, the station began to operate “stop list” — a secret list of guests forbidden from appearing on air. Aider Muzhdabaev and Evgeny Kiselyov, prominent journalists who were previously welcome guests, found themselves on it.

According to my information, it was people who were against the station’s new management that were included in this list. And Muzhdabaev is sure that this was part of a broader scheme.

As he wrote on Facebook in August 2016: “This media holding is directly controlled from Moscow by a fugitive criminal, an enemy of Ukraine. That’s where they hold their planning meetings, where everything is confirmed now, including the ‘stop list’ of guests who are forbidden to appear on air or be quoted. The list includes many people whose words and actions go against [the station’s] end goal of ‘concession’ — the arrival of the ‘Russian world’ in Ukraine.”

I’m told that I was also included in this “stop list” several months ago. But not everything here is so obvious. Of course, Radio Vesti was not controlled from Moscow. It’s not that there weren’t attempts to influence the station’s editorial policy from Moscow — but attempts to influence are not the same as successfully influencing.

That difference — between attempts to influence and actual influence — is not one that many people understood. The station’s employees were accused of “collaborating with the enemy”. And the idea that you can produce honest coverage in these conditions was far from most people’s minds.

Finding a common frequency 

The most important point, however, is that Ukrainians have lost what Radio Vesti gave to them — an opportunity to speak to one another. And that journalists have their lost jobs. In an ideal world, the station would be saved, but with another owner or with self-financing and an end to the pressure from the National Council. But that won’t happen.

The National Council, explaining its actions on completely legal grounds, has removed a good radio station from Ukraine’s airwaves. The radio station’s owners wished to use it to further their own interests. The result is that everyone loses, because Radio Vesti has little in the way of rivals in Ukraine. Can we call this a clean-up of the media market? Yes. And while there’s little in terms of certainty, we can only hope that this will be the last instance of this attitude to the country’s media.

Ukraine’s television networks — companies are owned by opponents of the current authorities — could be next. The Inter television channel is owned by the oligarch Dmitry Firtash, whom a Vienna Court recently ordered to be extradited to the US on bribery charges, and Sergei Lyovochkin, one of the leaders of Opposition Bloc and once head of Yanukovych’s presidential administration. Meanwhile, the popular television channel 1+1 belongs to the powerful oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, whose PrivatBank holding, the largest bank in the country, has already been taken away. And this is only the top of the list.

Amid the calls for a newly patriotic media, Ukrainians must defend their access to a plurality of political views and positions. Because once they start going off air, democracy gets an even worse reception.

Piece originally published at Open DemocracyCreative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Cover image by Oleksii Leonov.

About the Author:

Valery Kalnysh is editor-in-chief of RBC-Ukraine.