Ukrainian media mogul Dmitry Firtash walked out of pre-trial detention in Vienna last week, where he was arrested on bribery and suspicion of forming a criminal organization after paying a record-breaking 125 million euros ($173 million) bail.
There was a time when Ukrainians might not have heard anything about Firtash’s arrest or his fight against extradition to the US on Inter TV—one of the country’s most viewed TV networks—because it and other Inter Media Group channels are owned by Firtash, who previously had operated Inter TV as a mouthpiece for a government that was seen as corrupt.
“It has a long history of being a tool for propaganda,” said Brian Bonner, the editor of Kyiv Post, an English-language news site in Ukraine. “I tuned out a while ago.”
Perhaps, says Vitaliy Yarynych, executive director of Telekritika, a media-monitoring group in Kyiv, Bonner may want to give Inter TV another chance.
Although the 48-year-old oligarch may have once had close ties to the Kremlin, which allowed him to amass a fortune, Firtash is also a businessman and a patriot. As then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was leaving town Feb. 21 under cover of darkness and Russians were rolling into the Crimea, Inter TV’s coverage of the uprising changed profoundly, Telekritika’s monitoring found.
Inter TV, which has a 24.5 percent audience share, is not alone. Telekritika noted profound changes in nearly all the channels it monitors. That’s important because television reaches 90 percent of Ukrainians, compared with 42 percent of citizens who regularly use the Internet.
“They seemed to know the situation. They changed. Now they are [reporting] critically and fairly. It’s much better,” Yarynych said.
Five wealthy businessmen in Ukraine tightly control not only the nation’s economy, through extensive holdings in all major industries, but also the flow of information. “It’s one of our biggest problems right now,” Yarynych said. “All over our television channels are privately held and funded by … oligarchs who use their position of influence to articulate their views to audiences.”
Once Moscow took control of the Crimea peninsula and replaced five Ukrainian channels with Russian programming, however, the businessmen also became strong patriots.
Take, for example, ICTV, with 22 percent market share, which is owned by billionaire Victor Pinchuk, a darling of the west for his philanthropic giving. “We were in shock,” Pinchuk, 53, told Forbes. “To see death as it happens, live on the air, is horrible.” His team also provided medical supplies to the wounded in the Maidan. “My thoughts were with them all the time,” he said
from his apartment in London.
The country’s wealthiest man, Rinat Akhmetov, who famously lives in the most expensive flat in Britain, owns Ukraine’s third most important channel, Ukraine TV. Forbes estimates his wealth, as of Mar 2014 to be $12.5 billion.
Akhmetov, whose business holdings control nearly half of the country’s coal, steel, ore, and thermoelectricity sectors, said in a statement to the FT, “The future of our country has been put under threat. The use of force and lawless actions from outside are unacceptable.”
Igor Kolomoisky, owner of 1+1 TV, not only directed his channels, which have nearly 11 percent of market share, to begin more balanced coverage early on, he accepted an offer from Kiev’s interim government to head the regional government in his native Dnipropetrovsk region in eastern Ukraine, where he controls a large share of industry and other businesses.
“I agreed, because the homeland is in danger,” Mr Kolomoisky, a prominent member and supporter of the country’s Jewish community, told the Financial Times.
The notable exception to the remarkable turnaround in reporting was Channel 5, seen by only 1.4 percent of the nation. That’s because they have always had the most balanced coverage, Telekritika said.
Channel 5, which broadcast live from Maidan at the height of this winter’s protest, is the opposition television network which helped fuel the Orange Revolution ten years ago. Not surprisingly Channel 5’s owner, Petro Proschenko is the front-runner for president in this May’s election.
Because Inter TV is the most watched station in the country—the channel carries European Football and has rights with international production studios like Pixar to show films—Firtash, who Forbes estimates is worth $673 million, but a US State Department memo on WikiLeaks estimates in the billions, carries the most influence in the communications field.
US authorities say they have been building a case against him since 2006. In an emailed statement released by his lawyers, Firtash said he is a pawn in geo-politics. A Vienna criminal court now has to decide on a US extradition request for Firtash.