Ukraine's only critical TV station silenced by ownership dispute

KIEV, April 25 Thu Apr 25, 2013 11:40am EDT

KIEV, April 25 (Reuters) - Ukraine's only television station to air frequent criticism of the government has all but stopped broadcasting fresh content after an ownership dispute and a staff strike.

Alexander Altman, a Ukrainian-born U.S. businessman who has in the past worked as an adviser to Ukraine's government, told reporters on Thursday he had taken over the TVi station from Konstantin Kagalovsky, a former executive of the defunct Russian oil giant YUKOS.

Kagalovsky for his part said he remained the legal owner of the station, and would seek to regain control of it. "I have not sold the channel and never planned to do so," he told reporters in Kiev.

TVi, established in 2008, has been one of the few Ukrainian media outlets not owned by a supporter of President Viktor Yanukovich, and has in the past complained about pressure from his government.

Last year, it was raided by tax police in the run-up to a parliamentary election. It also said last year its partner cable companies were being forced to drop it from their packages.

Most other large broadcasters in the former Soviet republic of 46 million are controlled by local businessmen who openly back Yanukovich.

Altman said he had transferred the ownership of TVi to himself after receiving "in a certain way" the documents that gave him power to do so. He also said one of his companies had a 305,000 euro claim against a firm owned by Kagalovsky.

"We have done everything legally," he said at a briefing in Kiev.

When Altman appointed a new chief executive at the station this week, most of its staff went on strike.

Since then, the channel has been airing mostly replays of old programmes, plus some content produced by the new chief executive, Artem Shevchenko, previously a journalist at TVi.

"This might become a textbook case of (authorities)destroying opposition with the help of third parties," said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.

In the latest deal that strengthened Yanukovich's grip on the media market, a prominent backer, industrialist Dmytro Firtash, and his chief of staff, Serhiy Lyovochkin, bought the leading TV station Inter in February.

The previous owner, former deputy prime minister Valery Khoroshkovsky, had fallen out with Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and quit the cabinet late last year. (Reporting by Natalia Zinets; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Kevin Liffey)