Graham Stack in Kyiv -
Ukrainian television channel TVi, a last bastion on air for opposition voices and critical investigative reporting, has fallen victim to a murky hostile takeover that it is feared may lead to its muzzling.
News that hitherto unknown US-Ukrainian Oleksandr Altman was the new owner of the TV station, and that a programme presenter Artem Shevchenko would take over as CEO, was first broken early April 23 by a TVi press release sent by email - to the astonishment of the TVi employees themselves. CEO Nataliya Katerinchuk initially refuted the press release, saying that it was a hoax and that the press service email account had been hacked. But a hired security detail then prevented her and the TV station's hitherto owner Kostyantyn Kagalovskiy from entering the TVi studios. Then the new investor, US Ukrainian Oleksandr Altman, whom no one had seen or heard of before, arrived to inform the astonished journalists that he was their new boss.
On the face of it, the move looks like a typical Ukrainian hostile takeover, with multiple changes of offshore ownership and competing versions of the truth. But as a crucial source of information critical of the government, and with pressure steadily mounting on the channel over the last two years as cable operators across the country dropped the channel, most of the journalists at the channel see the ruling Party of Regions behind the move, and have gone on strike until their demands are met and the channel's real owner is unmasked.
The special political significance and minimal commercial significance of TVi - which the owner Kagalovskiy says is loss making - are prompting suspicion that political bigwigs are behind the takeover, and will now buy the station off the unknown Altman. "The strategy is simply to win control of the company , then sell it on to someone on a plate with a blue ribbon, who will close it or turn it into a music channel," accused Kagalovskiy during a press conference on April 24.
"There has been constant talk over the last months that someone connected to the authorities was trying to acquire the channel - [gas oligarch Dmytro] Firtash, or Sergei Kurchenko (of Gaz Ukraina 2009) and other names," news anchorman Mustafa Naiem said in a special broadcast on events at TVi on April 24.
Controversially, the new owner Altman is crucially backed by the channel's former CEO, prominent journalist Mikhailo Knyazhitsky, who was elected to parliament for the opposition party Batkyvschina in November 2013, as well as by chief news editor and talk-show host Vitaly Portnikov. Both men justify their position by saying the exact opposite to Kagalovskiy - that the new owners have actually prevented the channel from being sold to structures close to the ruling Party of Regions and the family of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Oleskandr Altman did not reply to emailed questions. Altman and Shevchenko, addressing the TVi journalists on April 23, said that there was simply a new investor and nothing sinister about the change of ownership and management.
TVi has a tangled offshore ownership history. It was established in 2008 by Kagalovskiy - a former top manager in Mikhail Khodorkovsky's famously bankrupted Russian oil giant Yukos - and Vladimir Gusinsky, who is an exiled Russian oligarch and former owner of the once-independent Russian TV channel NTV. Both Yukos and NTV fell victim to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his first term as president 2000-2004. Kagalovskiy and Gusinsky's shared grievance did not prevent the two men quickly falling out over TVi, with Kagalovskiy taking over the main role at TVi.
There are also rumours that another Putin foe, the recently deceased exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovskiy, also contributed to founding TVi, and the current ownership dispute is a result of his death on March 23. The ownership structure of TVi changed two days after his death, with control of Ukrainian holding company Media Info shifting to a British Virgin Islands company Wilcox Ventures, of which Kagalovskiy is beneficiary.
But according to an extract from Ukraine's state company register dated April 19 that has been circulated on the Internet, TVi 's holding company Media Info is now 95% owned by a UK company Balmore Invest Ltd, indicating the ownership structure changed a second time within the month. Wilcox Invest now holds only a 5% stake. Balmore Invest's director and shareholder is Rachel Amy Erickson, a nominee, who is reported to be mother to the children of Ian Taylor, the notorious incorporator of shell companies for dodgy deals and criminal schemes.
Meanwhile, the online version of the state company register, which displays only the name of the CEO not the owners, in the course of the two days apparently changed its mind on the issue of control: first changing the entry for CEO of the company from Nataliya Katerinchuk to Shevchenko, then back to Katerinchuk, and then on April 24 back again to Shevchenko.
Bastion of free speech
"TVi is a niche channel, but it is the only opposition channel and a key source of critical information," says Andriy Yanitskiy of the Independent Media Trade Union of Ukraine.
According to statistics compiled by media NGO Telekritika, TVi had only 0.32% of total viewers nationwide on March 4-10. According to Yanitskiy, TVi has been under constant pressure over the last two years, being removed from many cable networks across the country, to the point where it is now largely restricted to Kyiv. "Quantitatively it is small, but qualitatively the channel is vital," he says.
Alongside widely featuring opposition voices in news editions, TVi has produced hard-hitting investigative reporting, especially Natalie Sedletska's "Tender News" that has held a magnifying glass up to the stupendous corruption involved in Ukrainian state tenders.
Now she has a fresh topic for investigation: "Our work is journalist investigations and consequently we will only broadcast after the conducting of an independent impartial investigation into the ownership structure of TVi before and after the conflict," Sedletska wrote on Facebook April 24.
Jason Corcoran in Moscow - Russian banks are disappearing at the fastest rate ever as the country's deepening recession makes it easier for the central bank to expose money laundering, dodgy lending ... more
bne IntelliNews - The Kremlin supported by national sports authorities has brushed aside "groundless" allegations of a mass doping scam involving Russian athletes after the World Anti-Doping Agency ... more
Jason Corcoran in Moscow - Revelations and mysticism may have been the stock-in-trade of Nikolai Tsvetkov’s management style, but ultimately they didn’t help him to hold on to his ... more