5th Channel televises the revolution for Ukrainian viewers

Breaking from the norm, outlet airs balanced views of presidential race

December 05, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIEV, Ukraine -- The television station named 5th Channel found a new source of programming last month that attracted a new, larger audience, including the president of Ukraine, Leonid D. Kuchma.

Until the country's disputed presidential run-off election, the 5th Channel was ranked 13th in the country's television ratings. But the morning after the vote, as thousands of protesters flooded the streets of central Kiev, the station began live broadcasts of the demonstrations.

Its broadcasts continued for the next 200 hours and became the voice of the opposition. Its images were fed directly to huge television screens set up in Independence Square. Events began slipping out of Kuchma's control.

The president, three days after the protests and broadcasts began, accused the station of "laying the groundwork for a coup d'etat." The chairman of the National Council of Television and Radio threatened to yank the station off the air.

But by then it was too late to shut down the 5th Channel.

A sizable portion of the country was watching it, including the protesters demonstrating in Independence Square in favor of the opposition candidate for president, Viktor Yushchenko. The station's ranking in the ratings had risen to three from 13. The government couldn't act. "They didn't dare to do it," said Andrei Shevchenko, the station's 28-year-old news director.

The protesters' success, however, is not assured. Ukraine's Supreme Court invalidated the Nov. 21 presidential election Friday and ordered that a new one be held by Dec. 26. But the country's parliament adjourned yesterday for 10 days without passing the bills necessary for the vote to happen.

No matter how the standoff is resolved, many here say, the news media will play a major role, and no outlet has been more influential in Ukraine's political transformation than the 5th Channel.

Pavel Klimenko, 42, manager of a plastics factory, lives in Kuchma's hometown north of Kiev -- a center of government support sentiment -- but described the 5th Channel's election coverage as more balanced than any other station's. That more than anything, he said, proved critical to undermining Kuchma's preferred candidate, Prime Minister Yanukovych.

`They told the truth'

"They told the truth on the 5th Channel," Klimenko said. "Those who could watch it had more information. And, I think it was more interesting for them to judge about the situation, as they could see representatives of both sides. The people who work there are real heroes, because they express the interests of the people."

After the Soviet Union's demise in 1991, many former Soviet politicians kept their hold on power in newly independent states, including Ukraine. To survive, those rulers have tried to prevent the growth of strong political opposition, limited the development of an independent judiciary and restricted the work of outside nonprofit groups pushing for reforms.

They have also kept tight government control of television news.

Shevchenko, the 5th Channel's news director, worked two years ago as a news anchor at Novy, one of three major television channels controlled by Viktor Pinchuk, the son-in-law of the president. The government had exerted pressure on broadcasters for years. But on Aug. 24, 2002, Ukrainian Independence Day, something new appeared.

Novy received an unsigned fax about coverage of the annual Independence Day parade through downtown Kiev. "Please say this was done in a European style," the fax instructed. (In former Soviet states, the term suggests high quality rather than any specific style.) "Everyone was laughing at that," Shevchenko recalled.

But that night, he turned on his television to watch the competition. And he was stunned. All three reports on the parade began with roughly these words: "This year's celebration of Independence Day was held in a European style."

It seemed trivial. But within a month, the government directives became more detailed and more overtly political.

Tailored coverage

The directives came to be known as "temniki," or themes. "This topic is very important," one of the messages might stipulate. "Please pay as much attention as you can to it." Reporters who included sound bites from government critics in these stories were sometimes fired.

No one knows who wrote the temniki. But they first appeared after Kuchma appointed Viktor Medvedchuk as his chief of staff. Reporters here suspect that Medvedchuk drafted them daily with the help of Russian media consultants.

In the beginning, the directives only affected television coverage of events in Ukraine. Eventually, though, the temniki also limited what television journalists could say about international affairs.

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