While he made his fortune in shady gas and oil deals, according to US State Department memos published on Wikileaks, he began to diversify in the early part of the millennium, purchasing banking and media holdings via his company Group DF, whose offices are in Vienna.
The structure of Inter Media Group is murky, but Firtash is believed to have first sold a 61 percent stake in 2005 to Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, who at the time was the head of Ukraine’s National Security Service and later became first deputy prime minister. In 2007, Khoroshkovsky named his wife as head of the media group.
A slew of journalists resigned over the political control. This was true not only for Inter TV’s newsroom, but also for the other stations as well, as stories critical of the ruling party were quashed, Yarynych said.
After years of being accused of abusing his power to control the country’s airwave, much of that criticism by Telekritika as well as the opposition, Khoroshkovsky sold his shares in February 2013 back to Firtash. De-throned from power, Khoroshkovsky now lives in London.
With Firtash consolidating his power, the political interference does not appear to have immediately improved Inter’s reporting. In December 2013 and January 2014, when pro-Europe demonstrations heated up at Maidan Square, Telekritika’s monitoring found that Inter TV and many of the other pro-government channels largely did not cover events. More journalists left newsrooms “in the spirit of Maidan,” Yarynych said.
When the stations did report on the uprising, programming was skewed to reflect the view of the government then in charge. A survey conducted for Telekritika from Jan. 31 to Feb. 24, by the International Institute of Sociology found that only 38 percent of Ukrainians found Inter TV to have balanced coverage.
Not surprising, the channel’s favorability rating was highest in the regions with strong ethnic Russian populations. Some 57 percent of respondents who lived in the east, for example, said Inter TV provided “objective and unbiased news about the Maidan uprising.”
But coverage changed when the Russians moved into Crimea.
“Firtash, as with many other Ukrainian oligarchs, are among those who are interested in the integrity of Ukraine and oppose Crimea annexation,” Yarynych said.
While some commentators, like Kyiv Post, say the change of heart is due to patriotism, Yarynych believes their business interests play a factor. All five channels lost a large audience share and a chunk of advertising when it lost Crimea. But the oligarchs also lost in other business interests, too.
Russian riot police took control of a Poroshenko warehouse in the southwest part of the country, essentially derailing the company’s extensive Russian distribution network. All the oligarchs stand to lose not just in Crimea, but in other parts of Ukraine with strong ethnic Russian populations.
The channels are owned first and foremost by businessmen “who want to be in good graces with the government,” no matter who the government is, Yarynych said. Ukraine’s business establishment wants to keep the country united to preserve their holding nation’s territorial integrity.
“This is among one of the reasons of change of news policies of the channel we currently observe; among other clear reasons of demonstrating loyalty to the new government,” Yarynych said.