Four months ahead of a crucial parliamentary election, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has moved to shut down two independent news organisations, including Lb.ua, an online news website with which EurActiv has had editorial relations for many months. Sonia Koshkina, considered one of Ukraine's most talented journalists, told EurActiv that she and her editorial team have chosen exile, because each of them could face a seven-year prison sentence, the same as former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
The Ukrainian media announced last week that Yanukovich had asked the prosecutor general to open criminal investigations against Lb.ua (Levyi bereg, or Left Bank), as well as TVi.
On 12 July, tax investigators raided the offices of TVi and its chief, Mykola Knyazhitsky, is accused of tax evasion - a charge he denies. Press freedom groups say the station on its management have faced months of harassment from tax investigators. Yanukovich blamed Lb and TVi, both known for their independence, for alleged lack of balance in their reporting. “Pluralism of opinions in the press – this is the guarantee of the democratic expression at the forthcoming election. The authorities must do everything to defend the media and the right of voters,” Yanukovich was quoted as saying by the website Rbc.ua.
Lb.ua now displays on its homepage the photos of four government officials - the head of the presidential administration, Sergei Lavochkin; First Deputy Prosecutor General Renat Kuzmin; First Deputy Prime Minister Valeriy Khoroshkovskiy and presidential counsellor Andrey Portnov - with the inscription: “Ask them where is Lb.ua”. “If you go to our homepage you will see those who, as we believe, are the immediate oppressors of our site,” Koshkina told EurActiv.
'Too risky for us to go back to Ukraine'
Koshkina (a pen name; her real name is Ksenia Vasilenko) said that the editorial team was now looking for opportunities to re-launch the site from abroad, possibly a European country.
“Four chief members of the editorial team, including me are refugees abroad. It is too risky for us to go back to Ukraine. If we cross the Ukrainian border, it is more than likely that we will be arrested at the airport, our passports taken away and we will be deprived any possibility of leaving the country,” Koshkina told EurActiv. “It is noteworthy that we are in danger of being sentenced to seven years of prison, the same term that Yulia Timoshenko has been sentenced to. It is clear for us and our colleagues in Ukraine that accusations against us are artificial and have political rationale. They are taken out of the blue,” she said. Koshkina said the only explanation for the media crackdown is the upcoming parliamentary election due on 28 October. “The Ukrainian authorities want to eliminate independent media. Our situation is a worrying precedent of open pressure against the media which remain not under control of the authorities,” she said.
On Friday, a group of MPs protested the crackdown on Lb.eu. The MPs said the website, one of the most popular in Ukraine, was famous for its balance, as it presented both the position of the government and the opposition. MPs said they turn to the Council of Europe as well as the NGOs Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House and the world community to stand in defence of the free Ukrainian media. Rerporters Without Borders on 19 July condemned the raids on TVi. The statement was signed by MPs Alexander Abdulin, Elena Kondratyuk, Yuriy Stets and Viktor Ukolov.
Koshkina was in Brussels last year, where she spoke at an event organised by the EU-Ukraine Business Council and attended by Ukrainian diplomats. There, she exposed what she described as the Ukrainian plutocracy